Understanding Ethylene Oxide Emissions and Their Impacts on the Environment

Understanding Ethylene Oxide Emissions and Their Impacts on the Environment

December 8, 2023

Ethylene oxide (EtO) is a highly versatile compound used in various industries. However, the potential health risks associated with its emissions have raised concerns among regulatory bodies and communities residing near industrial facilities. In this blog post, we will explore the impact of ethylene oxide emissions on the environment and discuss the crucial role Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) plays in monitoring and mitigating these emissions.

What are Ethylene Oxide Emissions?

Ethylene oxide emissions refer to the release of this chemical compound into the atmosphere during industrial processes. Ethylene oxide is commonly used as a sterilizing agent in medical and food production industries as well as in the production of various chemicals and plastics. Emissions from these production facilities are then treated through an assortment of abatement systems before release into the atmosphere.

How are Ethylene Oxide Emissions Produced?

Ethylene oxide emissions are produced through a range of industrial processes. One significant source is the facilities involved in the production and use of ethylene oxide directly for sterilization purposes. Additionally, certain chemical synthesis processes and fumigation practices utilizing ethylene oxide can generate emissions. An ancillary source of ethylene oxide occurs during transport and storage as it escapes directly into the air. 

What is the Impact of Ethylene Oxide Emissions on the Environment?

Ethylene oxide is known to be a hazardous air pollutant that can have adverse effects on both human health and the environment. It is classified as a carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and prolonged exposure to high levels of EtO has been linked to increased cancer risk, respiratory issues, and reproductive disorders.

When released into the atmosphere, ethylene oxide can contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, a major component of smog. Ground-level ozone can harm vegetation, reduce crop yields, and damage ecosystems. Additionally, ethylene oxide emissions can react with other air pollutants to form secondary pollutants, further degrading air quality.

How are Ethylene Oxide Emissions Regulated?

Ethylene oxide emissions are regulated by governmental bodies to protect public health and the environment. In the United States, the EPA sets standards and regulations for ethylene oxide emissions under the Clean Air Act. Furthermore, it is anticipated that new regulations, specific to ethylene oxide and a new Performance Standard (PS-19) will be released by the EPA in 2024. These updated rules and regulations will enforce strict rules regarding testing and monitoring ethylene oxide emissions in the air. PS-19 will incorporate strict testing requirements to further monitor and regulate ethylene oxide emissions via Continuous Emission Monitoring Systems (CEMS) within facilities that directly utilize ethylene oxide for production and manufacturing. 

These regulations establish emission limits for specific industries and require facilities to implement control measures to minimize ethylene oxide releases. They also include monitoring and reporting requirements to ensure compliance and facilitate enforcement.

How can Ethylene Oxide Emissions be Reduced?

Reducing ethylene oxide emissions requires a multi-faceted approach involving technological advancements, process modifications, and regulatory compliance. Abatement control systems including scrubbers, dry beds, and others are critical to greatly reducing ethylene oxide emissions prior to being released into the atmosphere. 

Regular monitoring of ethylene oxide emissions is crucial to identify sources and take corrective actions promptly. Compliance with regulatory requirements ensures that facilities adhere to emission limits and implement necessary controls. This is where Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) plays a vital role. Especially as Continuous Emission Monitoring Systems (CEMS) continue to be implemented to quantify ethylene oxide emissions.

Monitoring Ethylene Oxide Emissions with FTIR

Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) is a powerful analytical technique used for detecting and quantifying various chemical compounds, including ethylene oxide. FTIR spectroscopy allows for real-time monitoring of ethylene oxide emissions, enabling industries to take proactive measures to reduce their environmental impact.

FTIR works by measuring the interaction between infrared light and molecules, providing valuable information about their chemical structure and composition. By analyzing the characteristic absorption bands of ethylene oxide, FTIR instruments can identify and quantify the concentration levels of this compound in the surrounding environment. 

FTIR has been a proven tool in recent years to quantify ethylene oxide down to single-digit parts per billion (ppb) levels accurately and precisely.  It is our preferred choice in this space as the FTIR is very robust and can handle a wide array of stack and moisture concentrations. It also has an approved EPA promulgated method (Method 320). Thousands of tests have been successfully completed on sources via FTIR including wet scrubbers, regenerative thermal oxidizers (RTOs), drybeds, and many others when moisture and other interferences can be quite variable from the plant processes. This variability has shown to be quite challenging for other instruments currently available. 

The Role of FTIR in Ethylene Oxide Emissions Mitigation

FTIR systems equipped with advanced software and algorithms can provide accurate and reliable measurements of ethylene oxide emissions. By continuously monitoring these emissions, industries can identify potential sources of contamination and take corrective actions promptly. This proactive approach helps facilities keep peace of mind, prevents excessive emissions, reduces the environmental impact, and minimizes health risks for workers and nearby communities.

Moreover, FTIR spectroscopy allows for the detection of other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) present in the emission streams simultaneously. This comprehensive monitoring capability helps industries ensure compliance with environmental regulations and improve overall air quality.

Mitigating Ethylene Oxide Emissions with FTIR Technology

Ethylene oxide emissions pose a significant threat to the environment and public health. However, it is also a critical compound for sterilization and chemical processing. Understanding the impacts of these emissions and implementing effective monitoring and mitigation strategies is essential for sustainable industrial practices. By using a combination of best practices, abatement, and monitoring, ethylene oxide can continue to support a critical industry without having to pollute the environment and instill fear within the public. FTIR plays a vital role in this regard by enabling real-time monitoring and quantification of ethylene oxide emissions to keep facilities, state agencies, and the public at ease. 

Data quality is of utmost importance and FTIR has a proven track record to continue to support the needs within this evolving landscape. By embracing this innovative monitoring solution, organizations can prioritize the well-being of both our planet and the communities that reside near industrial facilities.

Reach out to one of our experts at Montrose Environmental to walk through how we can help you today.

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