A bill introduced to the Senate last week would require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take immediate action in ramping up testing for ethylene oxide, benzene, and other causes of air pollution outside of manufacturing facilities that puts the health of surrounding communities at risk.

Democratic Senators Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware are sponsoring the Public Health Air Quality Act of 2020 to curb the release of toxic pollutants emitted by chemical and petrochemical plants, manufacturers, and sterilization facilities, which are “contributing to high local cancer rates and other health threats from dangerous pollutants,” the Senators say.

The proposed bill gives special urgency to air quality testing amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately stricken minority communities already suffering from abnormally high rates of asthma, cancer, and other illnesses linked to environmental contaminants.

Ethylene oxide emissions emerged as a major public health threat to certain communities after it was revealed last year that the EPA determined the chemical to be 30 times more carcinogenic than previously thought. The EPA disclosed those findings to affected communities in 2016, but no action was taken to mitigate the emissions until the media broke the news and stoked a public outcry.

Since then, communities in Illinois and Georgia where plants use ethylene oxide to sterilize prepackaged medical products have pushed to shut down the companies permanently or until they could implement filtration systems that would substantially lower exposure risks.

Benzene, 1,3-butadiene, Chloroprene, and formaldehyde are some of the other airborne industrial pollutants the proposed bill targets.

The EPA previously finalized a rule revising federal standards for ethylene oxide and the other harmful chemical emissions targeted by the legislative bill, but it has continually failed to publish the rule in the federal register, thereby preventing it from being enforced.

Senator Duckworth wrote EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler on July 14 expressing frustration over the agency’s delay in publishing the rule:

“This delay is felt acutely because though EPA is required to review hazardous air pollutant regulations every eight years, the EPA missed that deadline and was placed under court-order to update this and dozens of national emission standards. The text in the final rule posted on EPA’s website is a critical update since the last standards were issued nearly 17 years ago,” Senator Duckworth wrote.

According to Bloomberg Law, most of the 201 facilities covered by the EPA regulation are concentrated in Texas and Louisiana, with other major polluters located in Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, South Carolina and West Virginia.

Under the proposed bill, the EPA would install 80 new air quality monitors in communities that have been impacted by higher-than-usual rates of asthma and Covid-19. The agency would also be required to extend its current national ambient air quality monitoring network to include testing for a multitude of specific pollutants with monitoring stations in communities hit hard by poor air quality.

“Black Americans and other communities of color are dying at disproportionate rates during this pandemic, in part because of the long-term, cumulative health consequences and complications associated with toxic air pollution from facilities located in their neighborhoods,” Sen. Duckworth said, according to Bloomberg Law.

Environmental law

Beasley Allen aims to protect people and property from toxic chemicals. Toxic chemical exposure may occur over a long period of time at low doses, or serious injury may occur in a single incident involving a high concentration of chemicals or other toxins. Lawyers in our Toxic Torts Section are investigating cases involving toxic exposure in residential and commercial settings, as well as water contamination cases. If you have any questions, contact Rhon Jones, Rick Stratton, or Ryan Kral, lawyers in the Section.

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