Why is ethylene oxide dangerous?

1 Answer
Dec 23, 2015

Ethylene oxide is a small cyclic ether that is widely used as a disinfectant.


Any compressed gas poses a safety hazard. It turns out that ethylene oxide is pretty nasty stuff. While ethylene oxide has a fairly high boiling point of #10.5# #""^@C#, it is used as a fumigant and as a disinfectant that leaves no residue (it can therefore be used to sterilize equipment that cannot be autoclaved - i.e. BOILED!). It can, however, be fairly safely used in a laboratory by distillation from trap to trap or temporarily stored at #-78.5# #""^@C# (ethanol/dry ice temperature).

As you probably know, ethylene oxide is the best way to add a 2 carbon chain in organic synthesis. Grignard and lithium reagents add to the ring to produce (after ring opening and work-up) a primary alcohol that has been lengthened by 2 carbons:

#RMgX + C_2H_4O rarr RCH_2CH_2OMgX#

It has been a long time since I have used it, but I remember that it had the vague smell of sweet sherry (i.e. much nicer than the pungent, penetrating smell of ammonia).