EPA finds 23 commercial sterilizer facilities across the country above agency’s cancer-risk rate

Ethylene oxide is known to cause cancer when people within close proximity to sterilizer facilities breathe the gas in over the course of many years.


New information collected by the Environmental Protection Agency determined there are 23 high-risk ethylene oxide sterilizer facilities that have a cancer-risk rate that is about the agency’s 100-in-a-million unacceptable risk rate. The assessment was requested in order to broaden the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) reporting on ethylene Oxide (EtO) and to “inform the Agency’s proposed rulemaking process” to better understand where the risk is and how to reduce it,” according to the EPA.

“This is an important and welcome step to increasing transparency on the toxic air pollution and health threats that sterilizer facilities pose to health of millions of Americans,” Raul Garcia, Legislative Director for Healthy Communities at Earthjustice, said.

EtO is a colorless and flammable gas and is mostly odorless at levels found in the air of the communities outside of the facilities. According to the EPA, EtO is a chemical used to make other chemicals and products like antifreeze and plastic bottles and sterilize items that can’t be sterilized by steam, such as some types of medical equipment.

But EtO is also known to cause cancer when people within close proximity to sterilizer facilities breathe the gas in over the course of many years increasing the chance of certain cancers of the blood along with breast cancer in women, according to the FDA. This current assessment determined that EtO emissions from 23 commercial sterilizer facilties throughout the U.S. contribute to elevated cancer risk for people living in nearby communities.

“Now that EPA has new information on precisely where the worst health threats are, the agency must use its full authority to ensure public health so no one gets cancer from this pollution and require fenceline monitoring at these facilities,” Garcia said.

While commercial sterilizers that use EtO must follow the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is in the process of updating this regulation to reflect the new understanding of risk from EtO from the assessment and technologies available to reduce this risk, according to a press release issued by the EPA.

“Now, EPA must issue a strong new rule that phases out the use of ethylene oxide at commercial sterilizers,” Garcia said. “No one should get cancer from facilities that are used to sterilize equipment in the treatment of cancer.”

The EPA will engage with communities that face the highest risk of EtO exposure through a public webinar that will focus on the national scope of EtO risks on August 10 from 8 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. (Eastern Time). The EPA will follow up this event with individual meetings hosted in each of the communities where there is the highest risk.


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Ashley is an editor, social media content manager and writer at NationofChange. Before joining NoC, she was a features reporter at The Daily Breeze – a local newspaper in Southern California – writing a variety of stories on current topics including politics, the economy, human rights, the environment and the arts. Ashley is a transplant from the East Coast calling Los Angeles home.