The Environmental Protection Agency is warning residents living near medical sterilization facilities in 13 states and Puerto Rico about potential health risks from emissions of ethylene oxide, a chemical widely used in their operations.
Laredo, Texas; Ardmore, Oklahoma; and Lakewood, Colo., are among the communities facing the highest risk of ethylene oxide emissions, the EPA said.
The agency has notified 23 commercial sterilizers — 19 in the continental United States and four in Puerto Rico — that their operations pose an elevated risk of cancer and other ailments. The announcement follows a recent investigation of emission data from almost 100 commercial sterilizers across the country.
Ethylene oxide is used to clean everything from catheters to syringes, pacemakers and plastic surgical gowns.
While short-term or infrequent exposure to ethylene oxide does not appear to pose a health risk, the EPA said long-term or lifelong exposure to the chemical can lead to a variety of health effects, including lymphoma and breast cancer. The EPA said it is working with commercial sterilizers to take appropriate steps to reduce emissions.
“Today, the EPA is taking action to ensure communities are informed and engaged in our efforts to address ethylene oxide, a potent air toxicant that poses a serious health risk with long-term exposure,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement Wednesday.
EPA will conduct public outreach campaigns in each of the communities where elevated risks have been found, including a webinar on August 10.
Laredo, one of the communities targeted by the EPA alert, is a border city where the vast majority of residents are Latino and more than a quarter live in poverty. Missouri-based Midwest Sterilization Corp. operates a sterilization facility in Laredo.
More than 40% of the city’s nearly 70,000 school children attend campuses in areas at increased risk for cancer due to ethylene oxide emissions from the Midwest plant, according to an analysis by ProPublica and the Texas Tribune.
A Midwest spokesperson declined immediate comment. But the company told ProPublica and the Tribune last December that the cancer risk from the sterilization facility has been overstated. The emissions it reported to the EPA are “worst case scenarios,” rather than specific pollution levels, the company said.
The Ethylene Oxide Sterilization Association, an industry group, said in a statement that ethylene oxide has been used for decades by the healthcare industry to sterilize a wide variety of medical equipment and supplies. More than 20 billion health products are sterilized each year in the United States alone.
In many cases. there are no practical alternatives available to ethylene oxide currently, the group said, adding that using less effective cleaning methods “could introduce the real risk of increased morbidity and mortality” at hospitals across the country.
The EPA called medical sterilization “a critical function that ensures the safe supply of medical equipment to patients and hospitals. operate safely in local communities, while providing sterilized medical equipment.”
A proposed rule to update controls on air toxic emissions from commercial sterilizers is expected by the end of the year, with a final rule likely next year, the EPA said.