After Almost a Decade of Missed Deadlines, EPA Ordered to Finalize Ethylene Oxide Regulations

Vulnerable communities were exposed to this aggressive carcinogen for years waiting for agency action. EPA must now right this wrong.


Erin Fitzgerald, Earthjustice,

Yesterday, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia signed a consent decree mandating the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to finalize much-needed updates to ethylene oxide regulations by March 1, 2024. This court-enforced deadline comes as a result of years of tireless advocacy from communities across the country and a corresponding lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of California Communities Against Toxics, Clean Power Lake County, Rio Grande International Study Center, Sierra Club, and Union of Concerned Scientists. Initially filed in December 2022, the lawsuit challenged EPA’s failure to take legally required action to protect the public from harmful carcinogenic air emissions from ethylene oxide sterilization facilities.

“Today’s consent decree signing is a critical step to ensuring that communities across the U.S. get needed protections from ethylene oxide emissions from commercial sterilizers. For years, EPA has promised new regulations to rein in commercial sterilizers’ toxic ethylene oxide emissions,” said Earthjustice Senior Attorney Marvin Brown. “And after years of missing their own deadlines, we sued and secured a judicially enforceable deadline. Now EPA must do its part and ensure that its sterilizer rule protects communities from this cancer-causing pollution.”

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. Despite this new assessment, it has taken EPA seven years to propose new standards while countless people and their families were left vulnerable to chronic — sometimes fatal — health impacts of ethylene oxide exposure. Now, the agency must use the best-available science to enact the strongest possible protections to ensure that impacted communities will not continue to be subjected to exposure to this aggressive carcinogen.

Quotes from our Clients:

“As a result of the collaboration of environmental justice communities and national environmental organizations, today marks a monumental step towards cleaner air,” said Celeste Flores, Clean Power Lake County (IL) steering committee member. “We are one step closer to ensuring that the EPA finalizes the crucial commercial sterilizer rules for EtO. We urge the EPA to act swiftly and pass the strongest regulations for healthy communities.”

“EPA must adopt strong, health-protective enforceable limits on ethylene oxide for our nation’s 86 sterilizers and their warehouses that include fenceline monitoring to verify those limits are being met,” stated Jane Williams of California Communities Against Toxics.

“Thank goodness that we have groups like Earthjustice to fight for us so that agencies like the EPA do much more to protect communities like ours that face extremely high cancer level risks due to dangerous ethylene oxide emissions from commercial sterilizer companies like Midwest Sterilization,” said Tricia Cortez of Rio Grande International Study Center in Laredo, TX. “We need the EPA to pass the strongest rule possible, as quickly as possible.”

“Families across Texas have been forced to grapple with the pervasive health and environmental impacts of ethylene oxide emissions. 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. “Now the clock is ticking for the agency needs to act as swiftly as possible to finalize the strongest possible protections for the environment and public health.”

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