In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded a 10-year study of ethylene oxide, a chemical gas commonly used in the sterilization of medical devices. The exhaustive study found the gas was extremely toxic to human health in that it was 30 times more likely to cause certain cancers than scientists previously thought.
To people in multiple communities throughout the U.S., many of whom are struggling with cancer, this is a huge problem. Ethylene oxide is widely used and produced in the U.S. in factories situated near homes, schools and businesses.
Communities at risk
In 2018, the EPA issued the results of its National Air Toxins Assessment (NATA) study, an evaluation of the health risks posed by airborne releases of toxins. The report flagged 109 census areas where exposed residents are living under an elevated threat of cancer and other health problems posed by airborne toxins. According to Georgia Health News, most of the risks were driven by just one chemical: ethylene oxide.
The dozen census areas living under the highest threat of health risks are all in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” and all are in the shadow of facilities that make ethylene oxide or use it to produce other chemicals.
States where additional communities are at risk include Colorado, Georgia, Delaware, Illinois, New Mexico and Texas, according to an analysis of the NATA data.
As part of an investigative report about the silent threat of ethylene oxide, Darien, Illinois, resident Neringa Zymancius told The Intercept that she and her husband chose to live in the Chicago suburb of Darien largely because it seemed like a safe place to raise kids.
But according to The Intercept, the community is one of seven census tracts in DuPage County, Illinois, where ethylene oxide emissions are a devastating problem for the families who live there. According to the report, the risk of cancer from air pollution was most recently 282 per million – nearly three times higher than the EPA’s “upper limit of acceptability” for air pollution.
The pollution in Darien, Illinois, comes from the Sterigenics plant, which uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, and food. The plant has been using the chemical in this capacity for nearly three and a half decades.
Ethylene oxide as a sterilization agent
Ethylene oxide is one of the most commonly used sterilization agents in the health care industry because it is ideal for cleaning delicate instruments and devices that require sterilization. The chemical is also compatible with a wide range of materials, so the threat of damaging equipment is minimal. Ethylene oxide can sterilize electronic instruments, optical equipment, paper, rubber, and plastics that can’t tolerate heat, moisture, or abrasive chemicals.
While ethylene oxide molecules disperse in outdoor air, they have a half-life of about seven months, so they don’t disappear for a long time and emissions accumulate. People who live near a plant that routinely releases the gas are constantly breathing it in.
In screening a place to make a home for your family, “You look for sexual predators, good schools, taxes,” Ms. Zymancius told The Intercept. “You don’t think you would have to look at air and water. You feel like it’s the one thing in our country we wouldn’t have to think about. We have the EPA, we have people who work hard to protect us.”
Incredibly, although the EPA updated a key risk number for the chemical in 2016 to reflect its toxicity, it made a decision to not inform people of the affected areas and allowed companies to continue emitting thousands of pounds of ethylene oxide into the air.
In other words, almost all the people inhaling ethylene oxide emissions in the affected areas have no idea that they and their families are at a seriously high risk of developing cancer.
When staff at the EPA’s regional office in Willowbrook, Illinois, another Chicago suburb, conducted air tests in 39 locations around the Sterigenics plant, they found the cancer risk to residents was about 6,400 cancer cases per one million people. For perspective, the EPA considers the cancer risk in a community to be unacceptably high when it exceeds 100 cancer cases for every one million people exposed to a pollutant.
Atlanta’s ethylene oxide threat
The Atlanta metro area has the same problem. In Smyrna, Georgia, a Sterigenics plant legally belches thousands of pounds of ethylene oxide into the air. In Covington, Georgia, a Bard plant emits ethylene oxide as it uses the chemical to sterilize medical equipment.
As in the Chicago area, residents of the three Georgia census tracts heavily affected by ethylene dioxide pollution (all in the Atlanta area – two in Smyrna and one in Covington) are continually exposed to the colorless gas, which has no detectable smell in outdoor spaces.
According to Georgia Health News, Georgia regulators estimate that ethylene oxide emissions in Smyrna are up to 61 times higher than the Acceptable Area Concentration (AAC), the maximum level of air pollution considered reasonably safe. In Covington, Georgia, ethylene oxide concentrations around the Bard plant measure up to 97 times the AAC.
As bad as these numbers are, they are based on estimated emissions that are self-reported by the companies. According to Georgia Health News, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD), has not conducted any air pollution tests around the plants and has no plans for future air testing. Furthermore, the EPD has no plans to require companies to reduce their ethylene oxide emissions despite the alarming data.
Emails that Georgia Health News obtained under the Georgia Open Records Act show state regulators have been uncooperative with federal investigations of the state’s ethylene oxide pollution. According to Georgia Health News, EPD air branch chief Karen Hays “pushed back at EPA staff who requested more information on medical sterilizers in Georgia, including how companies were making their estimates for ethylene oxide emissions. Hays said the work was unnecessary and burdensome, emails show. EPA backed off the request.”
The cost of lax regulation
The ethylene oxide problem in Georgia and the other affected states demonstrates what can happen when the taxpayer-funded regulatory agencies cede too much oversight, authority, and management to profit-driven corporations. Not only do taxpayers fund the regulatory agencies, many pay the ultimate price for the lack of environmental oversight and controls. The ethylene oxide reports published by The Intercept and Georgia Health News feature several residents of the high-risk areas who have died young from cancer or have waged ongoing and recurring battles with various forms of the disease.
If state and federal regulators fail to hold big polluters accountable for the degradation of our air and water and the hazards it poses to our families and communities, who will?
At least one Georgia legislator wants better government controls.
“I’d like to see independent air quality testing in the area around Covington that the EPD study says is impacted,” U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democrat who represents Georgia’s 4th District, told Georgia Health News. His district includes Covington and the BD Bard Plant. “The fact that state and federal agencies have known the dangers of ethylene oxide and have not informed residents is unacceptable. Federal, state and local officials should work together to assess the dangers these emissions pose to our communities and determine next steps to protect the health and well-being of our citizens.”
State senator Brian Strickland, a Republican who represents the Covington area, declined to comment to Georgia Health News about the ethylene oxide emission problem.
Lawyers in Beasley Allen’s Toxic Torts section are examining issues surrounding ethylene oxide and increased risk of cancer. For more information about this topic, contact Rhon Jones, who is head of our Toxic Torts Section.