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Industry Is Trying to Weaken Regulations on Cancer-Causing Emissions

What happened: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed updated rules for better regulating carcinogenic emissions from ethylene oxide commercial sterilization facilities. The rulemaking comes after years of pressure from Earthjustice’s community partners to halt cancer-causing emissions in their communities.

Why it matters: Commercial sterilizers use ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment and some dried food products. It is a known carcinogen to humans, especially when inhaled. EPA updated ethylene oxide’s toxicity value in 2016 and admits that the chemical is significantly more toxic than previously estimated. Nearly 14 million people in the United States and Puerto Rico live within five miles of a commercial sterilizer.

The sterilizer industry has lobbied the EPA to weaken and delay the proposed rule, but communities have already faced the health threats of ethylene oxide for decades. The rule will be finalized any day now. Join us in urging the Biden administration to put people’s health before industry’s will.

How the proposed rule will reduce ethylene oxide emissions

  • The proposed rule will require sterilizer facilities to reduce emissions from both major and minor sources by installing control technology. According to the EPA, these regulations could eliminate an estimated 80% of ethylene oxide emissions once implemented.
  • The proposal will require all facilities to seek a Title V permit, which would increase transparency for communities living near these facilities. Furthermore, facilities will have to use updated testing requirements for their emission control equipment and must control some previously uncontrolled emissions.

Health impacts of ethylene oxide

  • Ethylene oxide is a colorless, typically odorless, flammable gas used to sterilize medical equipment and as a base for chemicals that form antifreeze, plastics, detergents, and adhesives.
  • One of the most toxic chemicals that the EPA regulates: Long-term exposure causes damage to the nervous system and increases people’s risk of developing cancer, leukemia, and other terminal illnesses.
  • Communities at risk: Facilities that emit ethylene oxide are typically found in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, many already grappling with elevated toxic exposure and health risks from multiple forms of industrial pollution.
  • Cancer risk: In its latest risk assessment, the EPA found that registered uses of ethylene oxide present up to a 1 in 10 lifetime cancer risk for workers inside sterilization facilities, among the highest risks ever calculated.

EPA’s new rules are a response to pressure from Earthjustice lawsuits

  • Under the Clean Air Act, the government must revise its air toxics standards for every category of polluting industry — including commercial sterilizers — every eight years. But the agency repeatedly missed its deadline to revise the commercial sterilizer rule; first in 2014 and again in April 2022.
  • Lawsuit details: Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the EPA over the agency’s failure to update standards to protect the public from harmful air emissions from ethylene oxide sterilization facilities, arguing that it was dodging its obligation under the Clean Air Act.
  • Updated regulations matter: In the years that the EPA failed to revise its regulations on ethylene oxide, workers and communities have suffered from exposure to the chemical.
  • The right to clean air should never be compromised by government inaction. Earthjustice uses the power of the courts to compel the government to reign in polluters who are poisoning our air and communities.
A map of the lower-48 and Puerto Rico depicting where commercial sterilizer facilities are with black dots, and which ones the EPA has flagged as high risk with red dots.

Ethylene oxide-emitting commercial sterilizer facilities in the United States. Sources: Esri, USGS, EPA, NOAA. (Casey Chin / Earthjustice)

Clean Air Laredo Coalition and Rio Grande International Study Center rally in front of Midwest Sterilizer facility in Laredo, TX. The facility ranks among the most polluting facilities in the nation of ethylene oxide emissions.
Clean Air Laredo Coalition and Rio Grande International Study Center rally in front of Midwest Sterilizer facility in Laredo, TX. The facility ranks among the most polluting facilities in the nation of ethylene oxide emissions. (RGISC)