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Ethylene, Acetene

SPRI Emission Reporting Threshold
1,000 Kg/yr Pollutant Emissions to Air
This sheet is a generic summary, designed to give the reader a basic level of background information about the substance in question. Great care has been taken to represent as effectively and correctly as possible the broad range of (not necessarily consistent) information which is available from a variety of sources. The reader must accept therefore that this sheet has no legal status and cannot be relied upon in any legal proceedings. SEPA disclaims any responsibility or liability whatsoever for errors and omissions in this sheet.
What is it?
Under normal conditions, Ethene is a colourless gas, which has a faint, pleasantly sweet smell. It is very reactive and flammable. It does not dissolve in water, but mixes well with most organic (carbon-containing) solvents. Ethene is one of a groups of substances known as the volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
What is it used for?
Ethene is used to make a wide variety of important chemicals. It is the main ingredient of many types of widely-used plastics and synthetic rubbers. It is also used to make other products such as antifreeze and detergents.
Where does it come from?
Releases of Ethene may occur from chemical facilities producing or using it. It is also released in vehicle exhaust fumes and from waste incineration plants. Trace amounts are found in cigarette smoke. Natural releases of ethene (from green plants, fruits and other living organisms, seepage from reserves of natural gas and from wood fires) make up a notable proportion of the total.
How might it affect the environment?
Elevated levels of Ethene itself in the environment are common and are unlikely to harm wildlife or damage plants. However, as a VOC, Ethene can be involved in reactions that produce ground level ozone, which can damage crops and materials. It is not considered likely that Ethene pollution has any effects on the global environment.
How might exposure to it affect human health?
Ethylene enters the body primarily by inhalation of air containing ethylene, but can also enter the body by dermal contact with ethylene. Ethylene is of low toxicity to humans and exposure to ethylene is unlikely to have any adverse health effects. However, inhalation of air containing extremely high levels of ethylene may lead to effects including headache, drowsiness, dizziness, nausea, weakness and unconsciousness. Studies have shown that ethylene is metabolised to ethylene oxide, which has more adverse effects on human health. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has designated ethylene as being not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has designated ethylene oxide as a carcinogen. However, exposure to ethylene at normal background levels is unlikely to have any adverse effect on human health.
What steps are being taken to limit the potential impacts?
Releases of Ethene are regulated through the UK Pollution, Prevention and Control (PPC) Regulations. As a VOC, levels of Ethene in air are also controlled through the UK National Air Quality Strategy. It is also regulated through the European Directive concerned with pollution of the aquatic environment (76/464/EEC), that which evaluates and controls the risks of substances known to be in the environment (793/93), through the EC Ambient Air Daughter Directive (1999/30/EC) and the European Solvents Directive (99/13/EC). The main international legislation regulating levels of VOCs such as Ethene is the UN/ECE Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution and the Basel Convention on the transboundary movement and disposal of hazardous wastes.