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.”

LAREDO, TX - To confront a significant public health threat in Laredo, a group of concerned citizens has formed the Clean Air Laredo Coalition and is inviting the community to a neighborhood townhall to get better informed and take action.

WHAT: Ethylene Oxide Townhall

WHO: Clean Air Laredo Coalition with CM Vanessa Perez, Dist 7, and Rio Grande International Study Center

DATE & TIME: Wednesday, December 8 @ 6:30 pm

WHERE: Fasken Community Center (15201 Cerralavo Dr., 78045)

DETAILS: Free and open to the public. More info at cleanairlaredo.org

The Coalition is demanding that Midwest Sterilization Corp. zero out all ethylene oxide emissions that it’s releasing into the air because of the extreme level of cancer risk for Laredo, based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data. Midwest, which is based in Jackson, Missouri, opened its Laredo plant in 2005. It’s located in the Killam Industrial Park off Mines Road.

Ethylene oxide (EtO) is a mutagenic DNA-damaging gas used in Laredo as a sterilizing agent for medical equipment. In 2016, the EPA found that ethylene oxide is 60 times more toxic to children than previously estimated, and has linked inhalation exposure to lymphomas, leukemias and breast cancer.

In Laredo, 10 schools now rank among the top 1% of all schools in the entire United States as most air toxic and hazardous, according to a recent study by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst: Muller ES, Fasken ES, United Day School, Kazen ES, Finley ES, Perales MS, Washington MS, Matias de Llano ES, and Trautmann MS. Sadly, 84 other Laredo schools rank in the top 6% as the most air toxic.

Edna Ibarra, Coalition member, urged Laredoans to get informed and unite. “As a mother of 3 and a resident of La Bota, one of the closest neighborhoods to Midwest, I feel appalled that our regulating authorities have not informed us of the dangers of living so close to this facility,” Ibarra said. “We NEED clean air to live and the air that we are breathing will give us cancer if there is no change. Clean air is our right and the right of our children. Given the current levels of toxicity in our city, there is nowhere to go. All the city is affected. We need to come together as a community and learn more and demand clean air. We need people to go to the townhall and join us.”

Local attorney and Coalition member Daniel Elizondo agreed: “This cancer-causing gas being emitted into Laredo’s air by Midwest must come to an end now. Laredoans deserve and must demand that their air is clean and free of ethylene oxide.” He noted that cancer is the second leading cause of all U.S. deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Ethylene Oxide & Laredo

The EPA has classified EtO as one of the most hazardous air toxins that pose the greatest health threat in urban areas.  In 2019, Midwest emitted more than 16,000 pounds of this toxin into the air, based on its self-reported data to the EPA, making Laredo the second leading EtO emitter in the country.

Vanessa Perez, council member for District 7 which includes the Midwest facility and severely impacted neighborhoods and schools, said that Midwest’s ethylene oxide emissions are unacceptable and must come to an end.

“Our community has to be safe, especially for our children and future,” said Perez, who helped form the Coalition with a growing group of teachers, parents, scientists, elected officials, nonprofit organizations, attorneys, and other concerned citizens.

EPA data show that a majority of Laredo residents fall within the highest level of cancer risk in the country (top 95-100%) meaning that someone who lives in the red area on the map below has a higher cancer risk of developing cancer from air pollution than 95% of all other Americans.

A new investigative map, below, by ProPublica shows the extreme cancer risk for residents who live and work in Laredo, particularly in the northwest, north, and central parts of the city.

ProPublica’s two-year review of EPA data, shows that Midwest’s EtO emissions are estimated to increase cancer risk for people living within five miles of the facility by an average of 1 in 13,000, much higher than the EPA’s threshold of 1-in-1 million as an “acceptable risk” which triggers federal regulations to notify polluters.

The risk is substantially greater the closer to the facility you live. At Muller ES, the risk increases to 1 in 3,700. For Midwest’s immediate neighbors (employees and business owners who work within the Killam Industrial Park), their risk increases to 1 in 560, a dramatic difference directly linked to EtO emissions.

“We believe that the EPA should begin air monitoring around the Midwest facility immediately to accurately measure EtO emissions here in Laredo,” said RGISC Board President Melissa R. Cigarroa. “Midwest should clean up its act. This company, which has been emitting EtO since 2005, says that it has invested in technology to reduce EtO emissions, but according to their own reporting, emissions continue. The dangerous risks of cancer remain too high for residents and our children.”

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