Ethidium Bromide Disposal

Ethidium bromide: CAS #1239-45-8

other names include:
2,7-diamino-10-ethyl-phenylphenanthridium bromide
homidium bromide
novidium bromide
babidium bromide Background:

Ethidium bromide (EB) is a red cationic fluorescent dye that may be used to visualize DNA and RNA and as a protein synthesis inhibitor. It is considered to be toxic and it is also a powerful mutagen having greater mutagenic activity than both N-methyl-N'-nitro-N-nitrosoguanidine (another mutagen) as well as benzo-(a)-pyrene (a known carcinogen) (ref 3). In addition to the mutagenic properties, it has been shown to have other effects on chromosomes and cell division in a variety of cell systems (ref 5). Because of these characteristics, waste material should not be disposed of in the sewer system or regular garbage. Rather, it should either be sent for incineration or treated to destroy the ethidium bromide. In our department, the greatest usage is probably for staining nucleic acids in electrophoresis gels and waste material includes solutions, gels and solids.

  • ethidium bromide powder: place container in a plastic bag, seal the top and dispose of through Environment, Health and Safety (EHS).

  • gloves, pipette tips, paper towels: if items contain only traces of EB, they can be disposed of in regular garbage. For material that is grossly contaminated (e.g. materials used to clean up a spill), place items in a plastic bag, seal, label contents and dispose of via EH&S.

Electrophoresis Gels:

  • deposit directly into a white plastic 10 or 20L pail (make sure a tight-fitting lid is available.

  • be sure to label the pail as containing "ethidium bromide waste"

  • don't bother lining the pail with a plastic bag as the pail and contents go into the incinerator (a bag just adds to the plastic load of the incinerator)

  • do not overfill the pail. Send for disposal when about 90% full - this will be processed through CHEMATIX.

  • leave the lid off during gel accumulation to allow the gels to dry

  • pails are sold at the BioStores (Z207).


Do not flush down the drain. You an send the liquid for incineration or remove the ethidium bromide from the solution and flush the non-hazardous liquid down the drain.
accumulate the liquid in glass/plastic bottles and send to EHS
reduce the ethidium bromide concentration by either:
chemically treating the solution to destroy the EB, or
see: Chemical Destruction Methods
removing the EB by treating the solution with activated charcoal or an ion exchange resin.
see: Adsorption on Activated Carbon
Once treated, the remaining liquid can be safely disposed of in the sewer system.

Option 1 is viable if you only generate very small quantities of solution or have very concentrated solutions that might be difficult to process effectively.
Option 2A: is relatively easy to do but people should be aware that several methods have been proposed and they are not all totally effective. What you are trying to do is get rid of the mutagenic activity of the material, spectroscopic assays for the presence of EB may not accurately reflect destruction of mutagenicity.
Option 2B: is also fairly easy and greatly reduces the volume of material that has to be sent to EH&S.

Other notes:

  • do not use any procedure that involves destruction of EB with household bleach as one published method has been reported to leave 20% of the original mutagenicity after the treatment.

  • all these procedures have been tested for solutions containing EB in water, physiological buffers or CsCl2 with similar results.

  • you can increase the sensitivity of spectroscopic detection of EB by adding DNA (10 µg/mL in final solution) to the sample (increases the fluorescent yield);

  • the charcoal methods may be best for dilute solutions (<10 µg/mL) while the chemical destruction can accommodate higher concentrations (<500 µg/mL)

  • methods for removal of EB using an ion exchange resin have been published but this is likely to be more costly than using charcoal as an adsorbent.

  • the methods here are for treating 100 mL of solution containing EB. Adjust the amounts proportionately for larger volumes but keep the listed values for samples less than 100 mL.

  • these procedures should be validated when first used to ensure they are working as expected. EB may be measured spectroscopically in a fluorometer but the mutagenic activity should also be assessed, especially if the procedures are modified.

  • if gels are stained in a solution of ethidum bromide after they are run (rather than including EB in the gels and buffer), the volume of liquid that needs to be dealt with is greatly reduced. The stain solution can be reused many times, it can be refreshed by adding more EB, and this practice only adds a few minutes to the procedure (this point contributed by Neil Adames).

Materials and Reagents:

all prices in CDN$ (July 2001)

Hypophosphorus acid:
Aldrich 17,688-0 (50% solution) 100g $28
Fisher A154-500 (50% solution) 500 mL $46


Activated Carbon:

Charcoal is activated by heating (700C with steam) in a process that alters the particle surface making it extremely adsorbent. Generally, smaller sized particles should have greater capacity (more surface area) so don't select a very coarse particle size.
You can read more about this interesting topic at

Fisher C272-500 powder 500 g $79
Fisher D127-500 Darco G60 500g $63
Aldrich 24,227-6 Darco G60 (100 mesh) 1 kg $60
Extractor™ carbon filter for ethidium bromide recovery:
Mandel Scientific #S-10448030 2 pack $47
Mandel Scientific #S-10448031 6 pack $104
Sigma Chemical Company Z36,156-9 2 each $54.20
Sigma Chemical Company Z36,156-9 6 each $120.30



1. Bensaude, O. 1988. Ethidium bromide and safety-readers suggest alternative solutions. Trends in Genetics 4(4):89-90.
2. Lunn, G. and E. Sansone. 1987. Ethidium bromide: destruction and decontamination of solutions. Analytical Biochemsitry 162: 453-458.
3. Quillardet, P. and M. Hofnung. 1988. Ethidium bromide and safety-readers suggest alternative solutions. Trends in Genetics 4(4):89.
4. Decontamination and destruction of ethidium bromide (EB). Appendix F in: Oklahoma State University Lab Safety Manual.
5. Summary of data for chemical selection ethidium bromide. 1994. National Institute of Health.