New Analysis Shows Stark and Disproportionate Harm from Ethylene Oxide Pollution

Science Group Calls for EPA Action to Protect Communities from Cancer-Causing Chemical

Published Feb 7, 2023

Washington (February 7, 2023)—An invisible and under-monitored chemical threatens communities across the country. It’s a colorless, cancer-causing gas called ethylene oxide, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is 9 years overdue updating rules that protect people from its impacts.

Environmental justice advocates have long called for better monitoring and regulation of toxic pollutants, including ethylene oxide, knowing that it poses a danger to marginalized communities. In a new report, “Invisible Threat, Inequitable Impact,” the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) illustrates the disproportionate impact of this dangerous but commonly used chemical on communities.

Researchers at UCS mapped two significant sources of ethylene oxide—facilities that use the gas to sterilize medical equipment and food, as well as certain facilities that use it for manufacturing other chemicals. The analysis of over 100 facilities shows that the danger is especially stark for people of color, people with low income, and people who speak a language other than English. According to the new analysis:

  • These facilities often operate near marginalized communities. The 5-mile radius around these sites include 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 air toxics 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.
  • 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.
  • Three metro areas have multiple sterilizer facilities, at least one of which has been identified by the EPA as exceeding the federal standard for “elevated” cancer risk, defined as contributing to 100 additional cancer cases per 1 million people. The Denver and Richmond metro areas each have one of those facilities, while the Baltimore suburbs of Hanover and Jessup have two.
  • Puerto Rico bears a significant and disproportionate impact from this pollution; it’s home to seven commercial sterilizers, including four of the most dangerous facilities.

“The threat from ethylene oxide is especially dangerous because many people do not even know that they live near facilities that emit this toxic gas,” said Darya Minovi, senior analyst with the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS and lead author of the new report. “Many sterilizers just look like warehouses, and the pollution they emit is invisible. There’s no required fenceline monitoring and no rules to limit leaks or accidental releases. People need to know the risks of long-term exposure to ethylene oxide and the EPA has a responsibility to protect everyone’s health. Being able to breathe safely shouldn’t depend on your race, your income, or the language you speak.”

It’s a dangerous situation that demands EPA action. While the EPA is expected to issue new regulations covering facilities that emit ethylene oxide this year, action is long overdue. The rule covering commercial sterilizers was supposed to be updated in 2014, and the EPA’s own science has shown that ethylene oxide contributes to cancer risk since 2016. UCS is calling for new standards that follow the best available science—by significantly decreasing ethylene oxide use and emissions, requiring fenceline monitoring, and moving toward a total phaseout of the use of ethylene oxide.

"The EPA has known about the severity of ethylene oxide emissions since 2016, yet the residents of South Memphis were only informed about it in 2022,” said Angela Johnson, the Director of Operations and Volunteer Engagement for Memphis Community Against Pollution. “Why were the residents of South Memphis and other similar communities some of the last to know? This is an egregious injustice! EPA has been exceedingly slow moving new regulations. People directly impacted by ethylene oxide emissions deserve consistent engagement and transparency from the EPA, and the EPA needs to act much faster to effectively address the ethylene oxide problem. This new report will demonstrate the danger we know we face, and this information will support our efforts to inform and mobilize people to take action in fighting ethylene oxide pollution."

UCS experts are quick to note that the new report shows only a portion of the larger issue. The UCS analysis looks at over 100 significant emitters, but hundreds of other smaller facilities use ethylene oxide for chemical manufacturing. To ensure that the public is protected from this pollutant, EPA must update regulations for all facilities that use and emit this toxic chemical.

In addition, many of the communities that are exposed to ethylene oxide pollution are also disproportionately impacted by other pollutants. While federal regulations work piecemeal—focusing on one chemical at a time—many communities are dealing with multiple sources of pollution.

“People are not exposed to one pollutant at a time in a vacuum,” said Minovi. “When you breathe polluted air, you’re breathing a mixture of the components of that air at once—and the cumulative impacts of multiple sources of pollution can create even greater harms to public health.”

Last year, UCS joined a lawsuit meant to compel EPA to do its job, follow the science, and put a strong and effective rule in place to control ethylene oxide from commercial sterilizers. It’s been far too long that EPA has understood this threat and failed to act—and the communities affected by ethylene oxide can’t afford to wait any longer.

For more information, see Minovi’s new post about the report on the UCS blog.