EPA Faces Lawsuit As Inaction Exposes Millions to Carcinogenic Ethylene Oxide Every Day

Groups demand immediate stronger air standards from agency after it repeatedly missed deadlines, despite knowing the serious health risks


Erin Fitzgerald, efitzgerald@earthjustice.org

Tricia Cortez, (956) 319-4374, tricia@rgisc.org

Today, Earthjustice, on behalf of environmental and health advocacy groups, sent a 60-day Notice of Intent to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the agency’s inaction to regulate harmful carcinogenic air emissions from ethylene oxide facilities as the law required. The Clean Air Act directs the EPA to review its ethylene oxide standards every eight years but the agency has repeatedly missed this deadline; first in 2014 and again in April 2022. The EPA admits the chemical is 60 times more toxic than previously estimated and that facilities that emit ethylene oxide, including commercial sterilizers and chemical manufacturers, pose an elevated cancer risk to nearby communities. Children are particularly sensitive to ethylene oxide when exposed.

Ethylene oxide is a colorless, typically odorless, flammable gas used to sterilize medical equipment and in the production of chemicals needed for antifreeze, plastics, detergents, and adhesives. It is one of the most toxic air pollutants EPA regulates. This toxic chemical is a known carcinogen to humans, especially when inhaled. 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. Last month, EPA released a list of 23 high risk ethylene oxide facilities across the country, which includes facilities near communities in Laredo, TX, and Lakewood, CO.

“EPA has delayed for too long to update sterilizer rule while communities suffer unnecessary toxic exposure and unacceptable cancer risks,” said Earthjustice attorney Marvin Brown. “Congress passed the Clean Air Act to protect communities from the harmful effects of air pollution, and tasked EPA with ensuring that industry emissions do not threaten public health. By failing to timely revise its sterilizer rule, EPA has left communities to fend for themselves against a deadly, cancer-causing chemical. We are calling on the EPA to finally remedy this injustice without further delay.”

Laredo is home to Midwest Sterilization, the largest private sterilizer facility in the United States. According to EPA data, cancer risk in the immediate vicinity of this facility is 1 in 10,000, which EPA admits is unacceptable under the Clean Air Act. Earlier today in Laredo, community advocates from Rio Grande International Study Center and Clean Air Laredo Coalition, along with representatives from Earthjustice, held a press conference to demand that EPA and local leaders finally take action to protect their community, and others like it, from the harmful effects of ethylene oxide.

“People often make the mistake of underestimating Laredo, but don’t realize that we have a fierce and passionate group of community advocates that will take a stand, hold the line, and not back down. We will hold every level of government accountable until the people of Laredo are safe from ethylene oxide,” said Tricia Cortez, executive director of the Rio Grande International Study Center and co-founder of the Clean Air Laredo Coalition. “We need the EPA to authorize and fund immediate fenceline air monitoring around Midwest Sterilization Corp in Laredo, which has emitted thousands of pounds of these cancer-causing emissions in our air each year since they opened in 2005. Air monitors is the only way for us to have any trust in the self-reported data.”

As each day passes, ethylene oxide threatens the health of many communities, like Laredo, that continue to wait on EPA to fulfill its legal obligations under the Clean Air Act. Today’s letter provides notice that community and environmental groups cannot wait any longer — and will sue EPA to compel the agency to enact stronger, science-based standards that are protective of public health.

“Excuse after excuse has led to death after death and EPA refuses to act. The agency waited more than eight years after the first deadline, and now missed a second deadline to properly regulate ethylene oxide, even as it recognized that the chemical was causing cancer to people in communities across the country,” said Raul Garcia, legislative director of Healthy Communities at Earthjustice. ”Our letter intends to compel long overdue protective action from EPA, but should also serve as reminder to state and local officials that their inaction is leaving people exposed to severe risk of cancer and other illnesses in the very communities they serve. Cancer-causing chemicals must be properly regulated at every level of government immediately.”

Earthjustice filed the Notice of Intent on behalf of Rio Grande International Study Center, Clean Power Lake County, California Communities Against Toxics, Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Sierra Club.

Quotes from our Clients:

“It’s been years since the EPA determined that exposure to ethylene oxide can cause cancer. It’s well past time to act. The science is clear: ethylene oxide is causing real harm to people who live, work, or attend school near sterilizer facilities — and that burden is falling disproportionately on people of color. The EPA must urgently issue strong, science-based, and enforceable rules that protect the people who today are in danger from ethylene oxide exposure,” said Genna Reed, director of policy analysis in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“The EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment. They are failing my community and communities across the country with their inaction to regulate harmful air emissions from ethylene oxide facilities. It’s unacceptable that everyday community members have been forced to file this suit in order for the EPA to be accountable and update their standards as required by law. Our rights have been violated and the EPA must do its job,” said Celeste Flores, steering committee member with Clean Power Lake County.

“EPA needs to protect frontline communities hosting sterilizers and act quickly to reduce the emissions which are causing harm. By taking this action, we are supporting USEPA in its efforts to set strong emission limits on these dangerous facilities and limit ethylene oxide emissions,” stated Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics.

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