US EPA Failing to Protect the Public from Ethylene Oxide

by Diana Gooding on September 18, 2020

Cancer causing chemicals are a major problem

Congress, lawsuits call for accountability surrounding cancer-causing gas

From an Article by Joce Sterman, Alex Brauer and Andrea Nejman, WTOV, September 17, 2020

WILLOWBROOK, Ill. (SBG) —A Spotlight on America investigation discovered an invisible gas may pose a cancer risk to dozens of towns across America. But now, ethylene oxide, a known carcinogen, is taking center stage in a national conversation, with lawsuits filed across the country and Congress calling for accountability.

Willowbrook Mayor Frank Trilla said it was like a nightmare when he found out the people he represents may be at risk of cancer from a toxin in the air. He found out in a letter that landed on his desk in 2018. It was an evaluation of the air by the American Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, that looked at ethylene oxide, or EtO, which was emitted by a medical sterilization facility called Sterigenics. According to the letter, “If measured and modeled data represent typical EtO ambient concentrations in ambient air, an elevated cancer risk exists for residents and off-site workers in the Willowbrook community surrounding the Sterigenics facility. These elevated risks present a public health hazard to these populations.” For the leader of a town of 8,500 people, the information was a shock, but it had to be shared.

“My alternative was throw it in the garbage and pretend it didn’t happen or go public. I had to go public. You can’t not tell the people,” said Willowbrook Mayor Frank Trilla.”

Trilla’s decision set off a heated hometown battle over EtO, that would ultimately end in Sterigenics leaving town. Willowbrook may have been the first to launch the fight, but they’re far from the only place impacted. Ethylene oxide is commonly used at chemical plants and sterilization facilities throughout the U.S., with some estimates claiming emissions could impact up to 288,000 people in 36 states.

An arm of the World Health Organization and Environmental Protection Agency have labeled EtO a carcinogen. According to the EPA, long-term exposure to ethylene oxide increases the risk of cancers of the white blood cells, including Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, myeloma, and lymphocytic leukemia. The EPA says studies also show that long-term exposure to ethylene oxide increases the risk of breast cancer in females. In 2016, the EPA found that ethylene oxide was 30 times more toxic than originally believed and that people who spend their lifetimes near ethylene oxide facilities are at the greatest risk.

In 2016, EPA said ethylene oxide was 30 times more carcinogenic than previously believed.

According to the EPA’s own Inspector General, 25 communities across the U.S. have been labeled “high priority” by the agency because of elevated cancer risks. But as a Spotlight on America investigation discovered, 16 of those communities still haven’t been warned about the risk by the EPA.

Federal and state lawmakers have been calling for action to address concerns surrounding EtO. Last year, 16 attorneys general wrote the EPA, urging “stricter standards for ethylene oxide emissions.” The attorneys general also called for the EPA to work with the Food and Drug Administration to find alternate methods of sterilization to reduce the use of ethylene oxide.

We are concerned that the current EPA standard for EtO fails to adequately protect workers and communities,” wrote 16 attorneys general in a letter to the agency.

Spotlight on America repeatedly offered on-camera interview opportunities to the EPA. It declined. We also sent the agency a detailed list of specific questions which it failed to answer. Instead, the EPA sent a statement saying:

“As EPA pursues its mission to protect human health and the environment, addressing emissions of ethylene oxide remains a major priority for the Agency. EPA is making steady progress under its two-pronged strategy for addressing ethylene oxide emissions. Under the first prong, EPA is reviewing its air toxics regulations for facilities that emit ethylene oxide. On May 29, 2020, the Agency finalized the review of one of these rules: the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) for Miscellaneous Organic Chemical Manufacturing. This rule, often referred to as the “MON,” will significantly reduce risk from exposure to ethylene oxide and other air toxics at affected facilities. Separately, the Agency is reviewing its NESHAP for ethylene oxide commercial sterilizers and expects to issue a proposal later this year for public review and comment. Under the strategy’s second prong, EPA is providing support to our state and territorial air agency partners as they look more closely at emissions in areas that the National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) identified as potentially at increased risk of cancer from continuous, 70-year exposure to ethylene oxide in the outdoor air. Already, this work has led to steps that will reduce emissions at facilities in a number of areas in states such as Colorado, Georgia, Illinois and Missouri – faster than EPA’s rulemaking process can provide. EPA will continue to provide our partner agencies support in both follow-up technical work and in their efforts to share information with the public.”

Lawmakers, including those at the local and federal level, have been critical of the EPA’s response to ethylene oxide emissions. In an interview with Spotlight on America, Congressman Bill Foster, D-Ill., who serves on a bipartisan congressional task force on ethylene oxide, criticized the agency for sending an inexperienced representative to answer questions and handle response during a town hall meeting in Willowbrook, back in 2018. Foster and Willowbrook Mayor Frank Trilla sat front and center at that meeting, which was attended by hundreds of residents.

On Capitol Hill this summer, Senator Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., introduced legislation requiring the EPA to improve monitoring for toxic pollutants like EtO, through deploying new air quality sensors and expanding the air monitoring network currently in place. But some have raised concerns that air quality monitors at EtO facilities may not even work. In May, a coalition of nearly 60 Congressional lawmakers wrote to the EPA to request information about how air pollution data is collected. The letter asked whether the EPA planned to implement fenceline monitoring near sources of ethylene oxide, and asked whether the agency was taking action to protect communities where an air monitor detected air pollution. Spotlight on America discovered, that request for information was never answered.

Part of the problem, according to experts like Genna Reed, lead science and policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is that in the absence of stronger action from the EPA, the industry often polices itself when it comes to reporting potential hazards determined through air monitoring. “Where these monitors are, how often they’re running, all of the burden of making sure that data is accurate and gets to the agency is put on industry,” Reed told us. “So, you have to hold industry accountable.”

That’s where attorney Shawn Collins comes in. He represents 85 people in Willowbrook, mostly cancer patients, who blame their sickness on EtO emissions from the Sterigenics facility in town. Similar lawsuits have also been filed in several other states related to other ethylene oxide facilities. “The focus needs to be where it belongs,” Collins told us. “If you’re making the profit, it’s your job to make sure you’re not hurting your neighbors.” Collins told us the science surrounding ethylene oxide’s link to cancer is indisputable, and he’s prepared to prove it in court. With regard to companies emitting EtO in residential communities, he said, “They’re playing Russian roulette with their health and their lives.”

Carol Tufo has endured extensive chemotherapy & radiation treatment

Carol Tufo is one of Collins’ clients. During an interview with Spotlight on America, she detailed her battle against aggressive breast cancer, which required 33 rounds of radiation and eight rounds of chemo. Her lawsuit claims her cancer was caused by EtO emissions she breathed in while working as a counselor at a school in Willowbrook for decades. She told us she wasn’t sure she’d survive.

“It just seems common sense that you can’t spew poison in the air,” said Carol Tufo. “Especially in a residential community.”

Today, the Sterigenics facilities in Willowbrook are shut down, after public outcry, but the lawsuits are the start of another chapter. Since Sterigenics shut down, Illinois passed a unique state law barring sterilizing facilities from operating unless they can contain 100% of EtO emissions.

Spotlight on America contacted Sterigenics over the course of the last three months, offering the opportunity to do an on-camera interview on numerous occasions. The company declined, but has created a website detailing its response to developments related to Willowbrook. The company provided this statement to Spotlight on America:

“Sterigenics plays a vital role in providing critical medical care to millions of people. Hospitals and patients in the United States and around the world depend on Sterigenics’ ethylene oxide sterilization process as the safe, effective, and FDA-compliant way to sterilize surgical kits, devices used in cardiac procedures, syringes and IV tubing, protective barriers to prevent infection, and many other vital medical products and devices. We remain committed to safely meeting their needs.”

“Sterigenics empathizes with anyone battling cancer, but we are confident that our Willowbrook operations are not responsible for causing the illnesses the lawsuits allege. The science does not support the plaintiffs’ claims in these cases. As we have stated previously, we intend to vigorously defend against the plaintiffs’ unfounded and meritless claims.”

Mayor Frank Trilla can still see the former Sterigenics building from his window at Village Hall. His souvenir from the battle to have the facilities shut down is a box full of documents about EtO and Sterigenics. Still, he told us, he looks forward to someone taking over the space for a new purpose. “I’m not going to rest until there’s new tenants in the buildings,” he said. “It’s not over until it’s over.”

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