The EPA has failed to warn residents who live near most plants that emit significant amounts of the carcinogenic gas ethylene oxide about the potential dangers to their health, the agency’s inspector general concluded Tuesday.
In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency has met with officials and residents around only nine of the 25 biggest emitters since 2018, when it publicly recognized the need to do so in its update of the National Air Toxics Assessment, the inspector general said.
Ethylene oxide is a flammable, colorless gas with a faintly sweet odor that’s used to sterilize medical equipment. It’s also used as a building block for other chemicals to make a range of products, including antifreeze, textiles, plastics, detergents, and adhesives.
“While the EPA or state personnel, or both, have met with residents living near nine of the 25 high-priority facilities, communities near 16 facilities have yet to be afforded public meetings or other direct outreach to learn about the health risks and actions being taken to address those risks,” the report said.
Eleven of the 25 facilities sterilize medical equipment, and 14 are chemical plants.
The agency said airborne releases of ethylene oxide emissions pose an elevated lifetime cancer risk of at least 100 in one million, a risk level that the EPA generally considers not sufficiently protective of health.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler responded to the report in a news release, saying agency staff has already met with affected communities and proposed a rule (RIN: 2060-AT85) to limit ethylene oxide emissions from chemical plants. The agency also has appointed a risk communication manager on all issues pertaining to the chemical’s releases.
Wheeler said the EPA is seeking information from several commercial sterilization companies on facility characteristics, control devices, work practices and costs for emission reductions. It’s also asking the public through a formal notice (RIN: 2060–AU37) for comment on limiting this chemical from commercial medical sterilizers.
“The tone and substance of this report indicates a disconnect in the US EPA IG’s office,” he said.
The Inspector General’s office “gave no indication that there would be any unresolved issues” during its last meeting with the agency, Wheeler noted in the statement.
“As a result, we are formally requesting the EPA IG rescind the report so it can be appropriately updated,” he said.
Medical Equipment to Deal with Coronavirus
The timing of Tuesday’s announcement coincided with a renewed push for more products during the coronavirus pandemic from plants that use ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment.
Both Illinois and Georgia have allowed facilities that had been shut down over concerns about the release of ethylene oxide into communities to resume operations, at least temporarily.
Bloomberg Environment’s analysis of the EPA’s air toxic emissions data shows that the top 10 ethylene oxide emitters in the nation were actually chemical plants in Louisiana and Texas. Among the top 25 emitters are medical sterilizer plants that use this toxic chemical to sterilize medical equipment in Illinois, New Mexico, and Georgia.
The inspector general said EPA has yet to meet with residents near 16 high-volume ethylene oxide release facilities in Houston, Port Neches, Laredo, and Longview, Texas; St. Gabriel, Taft, Westlake, and Reserve, Louisiana; Santa Teresa, New Mexico; South Charleston, and Institute, West Virginia; Milton, Wisconsin; New Castle, Delaware; Allentown, Pennsylvania; and Anasco, Puerto Rico.
EPA has met residents living near nine facilities in Smyrna and Covington, Georgia; Lakewood, Colorado; Verona and Jackson, Missouri; Willowbrook and Lake County, Illinois; Charleston, South Carolina; and Grand Rapids, Michigan, the report said.
‘Of Critical Importance’
In 2016, EPA said ethylene oxide is 30 times more carcinogenic than previously understood.
Based on the updated cancer risk value for ethylene oxide, the latest National Air Toxics Assessment, based on 2014 emissions data, identified ethylene oxide as a new and significant driver of cancer risk. That prompted the agency to start looking at the top 25 highest emitting facilities.
The inspector general recommended Tuesday that the EPA immediately convene a forum for an interactive exchange of information with EPA or state personnel regarding health concerns related to exposure to ethylene oxide.
The agency, however, told the inspector general that it would complete additional investigations of risks in these high areas before holding a forum to communicate these findings.
“It is of critical importance that residents are fully informed of ethylene oxide hazards wherever they exist,” Janet Rau, founder of the Georgia chapter of Stop Sterigenics, a citizen-led group that raised alerts about the dangers of ethylene oxide and helped push for a shutdown of facilities, said in a Tuesday email.
The group has opposed the reopening of the medical sterilizer plant by Sterigenics U.S LLC in suburban Atlanta.