LAREDO, TX - On Wednesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formally rejected the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) cancer risk assessment for ethylene oxide, a dangerous cancer-causing air toxin.
“People living near chemical plants are increasingly concerned about exposure to ethylene oxide, and the science shows it is a potent air toxic posing serious health risks,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in the announcement.
“Today we reinforce and advance EPA’s commitment to protect overburdened communities by following the best available science and data,” Regan added. Under my watch, I will do everything I can to listen to folks that are hurting and to take action to protect them.”
In Laredo, Midwest Sterilization Corp. has emitted thousands of pounds of this carcinogen from its facility each year since 2005, making the Laredo plant one of the top industrial polluters in the United States. The company and TCEQ have responded that Midwest’s high volume of emissions is allowed under its state permit.
Council member Vanessa Perez, who represents some of the most severely impacted neighborhoods and schools in Laredo, praised the EPA for taking a “clear stand with science and data,” and chastised the state agency for its industry-friendly approach that has left communities like Laredo to suffer with the harmful consequences.
Ethylene oxide is a mutagenic DNA-damaging chemical. In 2016, the EPA found that it’s 60 times more toxic to children and 30 times more toxic to adults than previously estimated, and has linked long-term inhalation exposure to lymphomas, leukemias and breast cancer. However, the TCEQ omitted breast cancers caused by ethylene oxide exposure from its risk assessment, creating an incomplete analysis of the air toxin’s risk to humans.
“TCEQ has caused much confusion with their data on the harm caused by ethylene oxide,” said Perez, a co-founder of the Clean Air Laredo Coalition. “Residents in Texas deserve an agency that will work to protect our health, and not confuse and divide people who are trying to figure out their health risks from living by or working near these facilities. Ethylene oxide is not a chemical that I want any of our children breathing in.”
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, who serves as vice-chair of the Committee on Natural Resources and Economic Development in the Texas Senate, welcomed the EPA’s announcement.
“Access to clean air is absolutely non-negotiable,” Zaffirini said. She described EPA’s decision as “a step toward helping Texans live safer, healthier and longer lives” and applauded their leadership and work to use “the best available science to determine the impact of chemicals like ethylene oxide on public health, particularly in marginalized communities.”
Laredo, a medically underserved South Texas border city, is 95% Hispanic with more than one-fourth of its population living in poverty.
The Clean Air Laredo Coalition is demanding that Midwest Sterilization Corp. zero out all ethylene oxide emissions at its Laredo facility. EPA data maps show that much of Laredo suffers from high levels of cancer-causing pollutants, driven by Midwest’s industrial emissions.
“We appreciate the spotlight that EPA Administrator Regan has placed on environmental justice issues nationwide and his commitment to follow sound science over the objections of powerful polluters,” said RGISC Executive Director Tricia Cortez.
“However, we deserve to know our cancer risks and demand that the EPA rapidly move to establish air monitoring to track the risk caused by cancer-causing pollutants in communities like Laredo,” Cortez added.
The EPA’s Wednesday announcement stated:
“Throughout stops in Texas and Louisiana, communities voiced concerns over the health risks that ethylene oxide (EtO) poses to their residents and called for swift action to reduce emissions of this dangerous chemical to outdoor air.
As part of the proposal announced today to reaffirm EPA’s peer-reviewed scientific assessment showing that EtO is significantly more toxic than previously understood, EPA is proposing to formally reject the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s less protective risk value for EtO.
EPA is committed to leading with the best available science in this and future rulemakings to reduce emissions of this chemical and better protect people’s health. The agency is also looking at a range of approaches besides regulations for achieving emissions reductions while regulations are in development, and ensuring communities are informed and engaged as we work to address EtO.”