EPA’s Strengthened Ethylene Oxide Regulations Will Help Protect Fenceline Communities and Workers, Rules Should Go Further

Statement by Darya Minovi, Senior Analyst, Union of Concerned Scientists

Published Apr 11, 2023

WASHINGTON (April 11, 2023)—The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a proposed regulation that would require commercial sterilization facilities that use ethylene oxide (EtO) to sterilize medical equipment or food to adopt new technologies to control those emissions—a move applauded by the Union of Concerned Scientists. According to the EPA, the requirement could slash the facilities’ EtO emissions by up to 80% and decrease cancer risks to surrounding communities.

Below is a statement by Darya Minovi, a senior research analyst with the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS.

“These regulations are long overdue, by almost a decade. I’m relieved and pleased that the EPA has finally issued proposed standards that are based on their own scientists’ recommendations on an updated, higher cancer risk value. If enacted, these updated regulations would reduce emissions in fenceline communities.

“When the EPA issues the final rule, they should throw the net wider. The standard should cover a larger range of facilities to include off-site warehouses that often store recently sterilized equipment that continue to release ethylene oxide, but aren’t regulated for their air emissions.

“While I welcome the proposal to expand monitoring of fugitive emissions, EPA must also require fenceline monitoring so communities just outside plants’ perimeters know if this cancer-causing gas still is drifting into their neighborhoods.”

EPA also issued a proposed interim registration review decision for ethylene oxide under the federal pesticide control law, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). The decision includes new requirements and protections for workers that use ethylene oxide as a sterilizer.

Minovi authored the report “Invisible Threat, Inequitable Impact” that looked at the more than 100 facilities in the U.S. that use EtO to sterilize medical equipment or dried food products, or to manufacture other chemicals. The analysis found:

  • These facilities often operate near historically marginalized communities. The 5-mile radius around these sites includes 14.2 million people. Of these people, nearly 60 percent identify as people of color, 31 percent are low-income, and 8 percent have limited English language proficiency.
  • The estimated cancer risk from toxic air pollutants in census tracts where these facilities are located is, on average, 60 cases per 1 million people, three times higher than the national average, with ethylene oxide a major factor in overall cancer risk attributable to air toxics.
  • Twelve metro areas in the U.S. have two or more facilities within 10 miles of each other: Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, El Paso, Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Phoenix, Richmond (Va.), San Jose (Calif.), Temecula (Calif.), and Virginia Beach. More than a quarter of the facilities in the analysis are in these “hotspots,” potentially exposing neighbors to ethylene oxide pollution from multiple sources.