Ethylene oxide is a particularly dangerous chemical that’s both extremely flammable and potentially highly toxic to humans. Just a brief exposure to enough ethylene oxide gas can trigger vomiting and diarrhea, and respiratory problems that can damage the lungs. Long-term exposures to the chemical have been linked to cancers, reproductive problems, irreversible and heritable genetic changes, and neurotoxicity.
Despite its volatility and toxicity, ethylene oxide is used ubiquitously in all sorts of industrial processes, from the manufacture of ethylene glycol — which is used to make antifreeze, among other products — to the fumigation of agricultural products and the sterilization of medical equipment.
Just how widely used is it? The National Air Toxics Assessment shows the cancer risk from air pollution broken down into individual U.S. census tracts. Of the 109 census tracts in the latest assessment with a cancer risk from air pollution higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) upper limit, 91 percent of the risk comes from just three pollutants, one of which is ethylene oxide.
Because of its dangers, ethylene oxide has been at the center of a protracted years-long battle between environmentalists, industrial workers impacted fence-line communities, and federal and state regulators. This battle has recently swung into sharp focus once again. The EPA is in the process of finalizing an important hazardous air emissions rule governing ethylene oxide releases at facilities like chemical manufacturing plants. Environmental groups fear the agency will cave to pressure from influential state regulators and chemical industry groups, and sign off on a rule that fails to adequately protect public health.
All this is playing out against an administration that environmentalists say has not only sought to broadly dilute scientific standards across a swath of agencies, but also uses the cloak of distraction caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to weaken the existing federal regulatory framework.
“This is a huge, bombshell issue — this is a more potent carcinogen than benzene,” said Neil Carman, the Texas-based clean air director of the Sierra Club. “They’re trying to change the toxicology of this very dangerous chemical.”
“Pull the Rug Out of Health-Based Science”
At the end of March, the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued a damning report that found the agency had failed to provide public meetings and other outreach efforts to educate residents living near 16 of the 25 highest-priority ethylene oxide-emitting facilities — including chemical manufacturing plants and commercial sterilization facilities — of the associated risks.
In response, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler formally requested the OIG to rescind the report — a move the OIG rejected. But in the near-term at least, these actions can be traced back to 2016, when the EPA released its Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) measure — a federal program to identify human health hazards — of the risks associated with ethylene oxide exposure. The analysis found that the inhalation of the chemical is “carcinogenic to humans.”
There are, however, attempts to weaken this federal risk estimate by undermining the science that underpins it, said Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, calling this approach “systemic.” The locus of these efforts can be found in Texas, an ethylene oxide heartland, housing within its state borders 60 of the 355 ethylene-oxide-emitting plants included in the EPA’s 2014 air toxics assessment.
Officials from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) have spent the past few years systematically critiquing the EPA’s 2016 risk estimate, and in the process, aligning itself with industry groups like the American Chemistry Council, an organization that has called this assessment “significantly flawed” and one that causes “unnecessary alarm.”
Indeed, last year the TCEQ posted its own draft ethylene oxide risk assessment — one that finds a risk estimate for lymphoid cancer over 3,000 times less than EPA’s, according to experts. To reach this figure, the TCEQ used a model “rejected” by the EPA and its independent science advisory board which resulted in the TCEQ “drastically underestimating the risks of ethylene oxide exposure,” explained former EPA staff scientist Jennifer Jinot, who contributed to the agency’s 2016 cancer assessment, in an analysis for the University of California San Francisco.
The TCEQ’s final risk assessment was published this month. According to agency spokesperson Brian McGovern, the revised version responds to public comments from the first draft and has been peer reviewed by an “independent expert peer review panel.”
Nevertheless, it still doesn’t adequately protect human health, said Carman, calling the assessment a “huge gift” to the Texas petrochemical industry. What’s more, experts fear this assessment will have a direct impact on federal air emissions standards through the Miscellaneous Organic Chemical Manufacturing (MON) rule, which regulates releases for facilities that process organic chemicals like ethylene oxide.
The proposed federal rule is currently being revised, with a deadline for completion by May 29. Earlier this year, 20 senators signed a letter addressed to Wheeler which outlines a number of problems with the proposed rule, including how it takes the “unprecedented approach” of using a risk factor for cancer that is “five times weaker” than what the EPA’s own science recommends.
Environmentalists also point to a direct line between the TCEQ and the EPA that exists through Michael Honeycutt, a chief toxicologist for the TCEQ whose prior public criticism of the need for tighter environmental regulations has led to questions over his professional credibility.
Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt appointed Honeycutt as chair of EPA’s Science Advisory Board — a move that environmentalists say was designed to help facilitate the administration’s deregulatory efforts. Indeed, last year, Honeycutt sent a letter to Wheeler calling the EPA’s 2016 ethylene oxide cancer risk assessment “unreasonably conservative.” In recent emails the Sierra Club uncovered through freedom of information act requests, Honeycutt urges a senior EPA official involved in the MON rule-making process to review the TCEQ’s own ethylene oxide draft risk assessment.
In response to questions about Honeycutt’s influence on the federal rule-making process for ethylene oxide emissions, EPA spokesperson Corry Schiermeyer wrote that the agency is “committed to using the best available science to guide our regulatory decisions.”
Truthout asked the TCEQ the same question. In response, McGovern wrote that the agency performed its own ethylene oxide assessment for “state regulatory purposes,” but that “other organizations are free to use it if they wish.”
These “collateral attacks,” however, are being waged because the law “really does have strong protections,” said Emma Cheuse, a staff attorney with Earthjustice, highlighting the federal Clean Air Act as a potential legal buffer. “They’re trying to pull the rug out from under health-based science.”
“Ethylene Oxide Monster”
A central concern for environmentalists is how many ethylene oxide-emitting facilities sit near the fence-line of low-income, marginalized communities already struggling with disproportionately high levels of pollution. Just take the proposed Formosa petrochemical plant in what is known as “cancer alley,” a heavily industrialized corridor on the banks of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
The gleaming industrial fortresses of this infamous community are nestled in the heart of St. John the Baptist Parish — a poor, largely African American community where the cancer rate is 50 times the national average, and where the air pollution is already among the worst in the nation. Formosa’s $9.4 billion facility — a behemoth of a complex comprising 14 separate plants — is a stark embodiment of this dynamic.
In January, the state issued permits to Formosa allowing it to emit ethylene oxide at levels among the highest in the country, said Corinne Van Dalen, New Orleans-based staff attorney for Earthjustice, who added that the proposed plant will be situated just one mile from an elementary school. “They’re creating a new ethylene oxide monster,” she said.
What makes the state especially attractive to companies like Formosa, said Van Dalen, is that the ethylene oxide ambient air quality standard in Louisiana is “nowhere near as stringent” as the EPA’s acceptable risk threshold suggests it should be. “This allows companies to use lower state standards as a shield,” said Van Dalen, explaining how the federal government has left it to the states to determine ambient air quality standards for toxic chemicals. “Why does the [federal government] allow this charade to go on at the expense of people’s lives?” she asked.
Certain medical sterilization plants are proving similarly problematic for fence-line communities. Indeed, four largely Latinx and African American census tracts surrounding the ethylene oxide-using Medline assembly plant in Chicago have an elevated cancer risk from air pollution, according to the EPA. Just last year, a study funded (but non-peer reviewed) by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that residents who live a half-mile from the facility have 50 percent higher amounts of ethylene oxide in their bloodstream than residents who live farther away.
“Facilities emitting dangerous chemicals like ethylene oxide should not be located near homes, schools, businesses, parks or other areas frequently used by the public,” Susan Buchanan, director of the Great Lakes Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the University of Illinois Chicago and the lead researcher on the study, told the Chicago Tribune.
A former firefighter and paramedic named John Bardi, who is also a member of the local community group Stop EtO in Lake County, doesn’t want to see the Medline facility — a big employer in the area — closed down.
Rather, Bardi — who has lived within one mile of the plant for nearly 25 years — would like to see its ethylene oxide emissions curtailed, and he voices frustration with what he sees as a lack of political interest in Medline compared with the nearby Sterigenics medical sterilization facility, surrounded by more affluent communities. Sterigenics was shuttered last year after sustained public outcry into its toxic air releases.
“That is something that only our elected officials can answer,” Bardi wrote, in a statement. “But regardless of where they may try to shift the blame for our ongoing pollution problem, it is undeniable that the minority and low-income residents in Lake County, Illinois, and across the country suffer disproportionate harm from pollution while the corporations that are doing the polluting are enjoying record profits.”
Sterigenics has other plants around the country, like its facility in suburban Atlanta. In response to mounting public concern surrounding ethylene oxide emissions from the plant, Sterigenics suspended operations to install new emissions control technologies. A 2018 explosion at the plant had also heightened residents’ concerns. In ongoing litigation against the local county, Sterigenics has taken successful legal steps to temporarily resume operations until a final judgement is rendered in the case.
These developments, when combined with attempts to “roll back” the stricter proposed ethylene oxide emissions standards, raise “serious public health concerns,” said Carman. “And the public is being kept in the dark.”
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Sterigenics suspended its operations at its Atlanta facility.