Experts Tell EPA: Follow the Science, Protect Communities from Ethylene Oxide

Scientists Support Effort to Reject Industry Pressure

Published Mar 25, 2022

WASHINGTON (March 25, 2022)—The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering new standards for protecting public health from ethylene oxide, a dangerous chemical often used as an industrial sterilizing agent. But what information will the agency use to craft those standards? In a new letter, nearly 300 experts are telling the agency to listen to its own science and recognize the threat ethylene oxide poses to human health.

In 2016, EPA released an assessment of ethylene oxide’s dangers using its Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). That assessment found that ethylene oxide was linked to an unacceptably high risk of cancer, especially for people facing chronic exposure. But major players in the chemical industry have been pushing EPA to reject their own internal assessment and base their ethylene oxide standards on an assessment created by the Texas Council on Environmental Quality and heavily influenced by chemical manufacturers, including the American Chemistry Council, the industry’s biggest lobbying group. That assessment, unsurprisingly, cherry-picked science to suggest that ethylene oxide is far less harmful to human health than the EPA analysis showed.

“This is a clear case of industry trying to distort the policymaking process,” said Anita Desikan, a senior analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “It would be unprecedented for EPA to disregard the best available science, carried out by its own staff, in favor of a shoddy assessment aimed at justifying weaker rules.”

Desikan said that industry lobbying on ethylene oxide has delayed the creation of strong standards—with real world consequences for the communities of color and low-income communities at the fenceline of facilities that use ethylene oxide. The chemical can damage DNA and lead to serious illness, including myeloma, leukemia, and breast cancer. The delays created by industry interference make it all the more urgent to finalize new rules.

In the letter, public health experts call on EPA to base their new rules on the best available science—and the experiences of environmental justice advocates and community leaders who have been raising the alarm about the impacts of ethylene oxide exposure.

“There is absolutely no reason for EPA to reconsider its 2016 cancer risk estimate for ethylene oxide,” said Jennifer Jinot, a chemical expert and the former project manager for EPA’s internal assessment of ethylene oxide. “This assessment was the product of a rigorous development and review process, and no new data or analyses have been presented that would alter EPA's major findings.”

In a recent blog post, Desikan said that new ethylene oxide standards based on the EPA assessment would be “an important win for scientific integrity.” In a comment submitted to the agency, UCS experts called on EPA to finalize strong ethylene oxide rules as quickly as possible.