Carcinogenicity and genotoxicity of ethylene oxide: new aspects and recent advances

Crit Rev Toxicol. 2000 Sep;30(5):595-608. doi: 10.1080/10408440008951121.


Long-term inhalation studies in rodents have presented unequivocal evidence of experimental carcinogenicity of ethylene oxide, based on the formation of malignant tumors at multiple sites. However, despite a considerable body of epidemiological data only limited evidence has been obtained of its carcinogenicity in humans. Ethylene oxide is not only an important exogenous toxicant, but it is also formed from ethylene as a biological precursor. Ethylene is a normal body constituent; its endogenous formation is evidenced by exhalation in rats and in humans. Consequently, ethylene oxide must also be regarded as a physiological compound. The most abundant DNA adduct of ethylene oxide is 7-(2-hydroxyethyl)guanine (HOEtG). Open questions are the nature and role of tissue-specific factors in ethylene oxide carcinogenesis and the physiological and quantitative role of DNA repair mechanisms. The detection of remarkable individual differences in the susceptibility of humans has promoted research into genetic factors that influence the metabolism of ethylene oxide. With this background it appears that current PBPK models for trans-species extrapolation of ethylene oxide toxicity need to be refined further. For a cancer risk assessment at low levels of DNA damage, exposure-related adducts must be discussed in relation to background DNA damage as well as to inter- and intraindividual variability. In rats, subacute ethylene oxide exposures on the order of 1 ppm (1.83 mg/m3) cause DNA adduct levels (HOEtG) of the same magnitude as produced by endogenous ethylene oxide. Based on very recent studies the endogenous background levels of HOEtG in DNA of humans are comparable to those that are produced in rodents by repetitive exogenous ethylene oxide exposures of about 10 ppm (18.3 mg/m3). Experimentally, ethylene oxide has revealed only weak mutagenic effects in vivo, which are confined to higher doses. It has been concluded that long-term human occupational exposure to low airborne concentrations to ethylene oxide, at or below current occupational exposure limits of 1 ppm (1.83 mg/m3), would not produce unacceptable increased genotoxic risks. However, critical questions remain that need further discussions relating to the coherence of animal and human data of experimental data in vitro vs. in vivo and to species-specific dynamics of DNA lesions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Inhalation
  • Animals
  • Carcinogens* / administration & dosage
  • Carcinogens* / metabolism
  • Carcinogens* / toxicity
  • DNA Adducts / drug effects
  • Ethylene Oxide* / administration & dosage
  • Ethylene Oxide* / metabolism
  • Ethylene Oxide* / toxicity
  • Glutathione Transferase / drug effects
  • Glutathione Transferase / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Mutagenicity Tests
  • Mutagens* / administration & dosage
  • Mutagens* / metabolism
  • Mutagens* / toxicity
  • Occupational Exposure
  • Rats


  • Carcinogens
  • DNA Adducts
  • Mutagens
  • Glutathione Transferase
  • Ethylene Oxide