Environmental Groups Sue EPA to Limit Cancerous Air Pollution from Chemical Manufacturing Plants

Plants manufacturing polyether polyols release the carcinogen ethylene oxide and are concentrated in Texas, West Virginia, and Louisiana


Environmental and health advocates today filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), holding the agency to its duty to review air toxics standards for manufacturers making polyether polyols, chemical products used in consumer and commercial products.

EPA last updated the standards for polyether polyol facilities in 2014. These outdated standards fail to adequately protect communities, instead allowing facilities to emit unacceptable levels of carcinogenic air pollution, like ethylene oxide. In 2016, just two years after passing the current polyether polyol standards, the EPA classified ethylene oxide as a carcinogen with a cancer risk almost 60 times greater. Since that classification, the agency has not revisited the polyether polyols air toxics standards to ensure they adequately protect human health considering this far higher risk.

“Given that EPA knows the cancer risks associated with ethylene oxide, the agency must reconsider emission limits for polyether polyol producers and prevent further harm to fenceline communities,” said Earthjustice Attorney Adrienne Lee. “We are going to court on behalf of impacted individuals and communities to ensure that the EPA promptly addresses this critical issue.”

Polyether polyols are chemicals used in making various consumer products, like lubricants, adhesives, sealants, cosmetics, soaps, and feedstock. Producing these chemicals releases toxic air pollutants, like ethylene oxide, propylene oxide, hexane, and toluene. Some pollutants can cause cancer when inhaled, and all cause toxic effects following exposure.

There are approximately two dozen polyether polyol facilities in the United States; the vast majority are concentrated in Louisiana, Texas, and West Virginia. Texas and Louisiana are ranked as states with some of the worst air pollution rates. West Virginia’s “Chemical Valley” — where most of the state’s polyether polyols facilities are located — has a long history of disproportionate toxic emissions and health impacts on communities of color, including the sprawling and notorious Institute facility located in one of only two majority-Black communities in the state.

People living in communities around these facilities are the most impacted by their toxic emissions. As EPA concluded in 2016, ethylene oxide is a known carcinogen to humans, especially when inhaled, with a cancer risk 60 times greater than previously estimated. Long-term exposure to ethylene oxide also causes damage to the brain and reproductive system.

Many of these facilities are in or adjacent to majority-Black or Brown neighborhoods. For example, at least five polyether polyols facilities are clustered in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River that contains over 200 petrochemical plants. An additional five polyether polyols facilities are located in the Houston Ship Channel, which has the country’s largest concentration of petrochemical facilities.

The groups filing today’s lawsuit seek a court-ordered schedule for EPA’s overdue review of the air toxics standards for polyether polyols facilities. In conducting this review, the EPA should follow the recommendation of the EPA’s Inspector General to conduct a new residual risk review, to account for the vastly higher cancer risk of the facilities’ ethylene oxide emissions. EPA also must remove the standards’ unlawful emissions loophole for malfunctions and set stringent limits for all uncontrolled and under-controlled emissions points.

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