EPA Inaction Exposes Vulnerable Communities to Cancer-Causing Ethylene Oxide Every Day

Groups sue to demand stronger air standards after agency repeatedly missed deadlines, despite knowing the serious health risks


Erin Fitzgerald, efitzgerald@earthjustice.org

Today, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over EPA’s failure to take legally required action to protect the public from harmful carcinogenic air emissions from ethylene oxide sterilization facilities. 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. Now we are suing on behalf of environmental and health groups to compel EPA to finally act and protect vulnerable communities across the country.

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. EPA updated ethylene oxide’s toxicity value in 2016 and admits that the chemical is 60 times more toxic than previously estimated. And despite knowing that facilities that emit ethylene oxide, including commercial sterilizers, pose an elevated cancer risk to nearby communities, EPA has not reviewed its rules for sterilizers since 2006.

“For too long, EPA has delayed updating the sterilizer rule while communities suffer unnecessary toxic exposure and unacceptable cancer risks,” said Earthjustice attorney Marvin Brown. “The Clean Air Act requires EPA to protect communities from the harmful effects of air pollution and ensure 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. No one should get cancer from the facilities that make sure that medical equipment is safe. We are calling on the EPA to finally remedy this injustice without further delay.”

Children are particularly sensitive to ethylene oxide’s harmful effects. 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. This past August, EPA released a list of 23 high risk ethylene oxide sterilization facilities across the country, which includes facilities near communities in Laredo, TX, and Lakewood, CO. As each day passes, ethylene oxide threatens the health of many communities as they wait for EPA to fulfill its legal obligations under the Clean Air Act.

Earthjustice filed today’s challenge on behalf of California Communities Against Toxics, Clean Power Lake County, Rio Grande International Study Center, Sierra Club, and Union of Concerned Scientists.

Quotes from our clients:

“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.

“Here in Laredo, we are tired of waiting for the EPA to step up and follow through on their obligations to our community and communities across the country just like us,” said Tricia Cortez, executive director of the Rio Grande International Study Center and co-founder of the Clean Air Laredo Coalition. “Our children attend schools with some of the worst air quality in the country because of ethylene oxide pollution. It is heartbreaking to think of how many got sick while learning to read and write or playing outside during recess. We need immediate action to prevent one more child from having to suffer the harms of ethylene oxide exposure.”

“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 EPA in its efforts to set strong emission limits on these dangerous facilities and limit ethylene oxide emissions,” said Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics.

“Ethylene oxide is putting people in danger today — the EPA’s own science confirms it,” said Darya Minovi, senior analyst for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “People living, working, and attending school near facilities that emit ethylene oxide need clear information about the risks and policies that actually protect them. Strong rules to reduce cancer risks from ethylene oxide pollution are long overdue.”

“Ethylene oxide is a hazardous chemical posing serious health threats for many living in fenceline communities in Texas. EPA’s harmful inaction on regulating ethylene oxide has benefitted the profits of the sterilizer industry at the expense of the health and well-being of countless families,” said Neil Carman, Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter’s Clean Air Program Director. “The agency needs to act as swiftly as possible to prioritize protecting the environment and public health.”

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