LAREDO, TX - On Wednesday morning, members of the Clean Air Laredo Coalition held a press conference in front of Midwest Sterilization Corp. to protest the company’s failure in acknowledging its role in emitting thousands of pounds of carcinogenic ethylene oxide (EtO) each year into the Laredo air.
Wearing gas masks and dressed in white hazmat suits, Coalition members carried bilingual banners and signs that read “Stop Poisoning Our Air” and “Why No Air Monitors?”, among other messages, and demanded that Midwest provide solutions on how they plan to eliminate these cancer-causing emissions from their Laredo plant, located in the Killam Industrial Park.
Due to Midwest’s high volume of emissions, large sections of Laredo are now placed at a very high cancer risk from industrial air pollution, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Air Toxics map (see below).
“We have to hold Midwest Sterilization to account,” said Melissa Cigarroa, president of the board of directors of the Rio Grande International Study Center (RGISC), at the press conference held on the sidewalk between Midwest and its top client, Medline Industries Inc.
“They need to be transparent,” Cigarroa said. “They need to have fenceline monitoring and share that data with the city because all of the data is self-reported; and while we would love to trust Midwest, we need to verify their emissions.”
The protest took place after Midwest refused to meet with a collection of Laredo leaders earlier this month - from school districts, city, county, and state Sen. Judith Zaffirini. Midwest officials, who are based in Jackson, Missouri, decided instead to hand-pick a few Laredo officials instead, and take them on a private tour of Midwest and Medline facilities.
“That’s not what we need right now, and this isn’t acceptable for our community anymore,” Tricia Cortez, RGISC executive director said at the press conference. “We are asking Midwest to be a responsible corporate citizen. We are asking them to stop their PR campaign of denying the hazard that they have created for our community.”
Meanwhile, Midwest has continued to give thousands of dollars in donations to local groups, and run full-page ads denying the human health threat caused by ethylene oxide - a position that runs counter to the scientific data consistently backed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Alejandra Arguindegui, a business owner and health and environmental activist who joined the Coalition, pointed out that technology already exists for companies like Midwest to use other sterilization methods that don’t emit carcinogenic gasses like EtO.
“EtO was reclassified five years ago by the EPA as a Class 1 carcinogen,” Arguindegui said. “There is no amount of ethylene oxide that we as caring citizens should accept in our community. We want Midwest Sterilization Corp. to use newer technologies to keep our air safe. This is an urgent call to action that should not be delayed by bureaucratic red tape and big business influence.”
Based in Jackson, Missouri, Midwest opened its Laredo plant in 2005 and has become one of the top industrial air polluters in the U.S. It has emitted nearly 200,000 pounds of EtO into the Laredo air, according to self-reported company data from 2005 to 2020.
City Councilmember Vanessa Perez, who represents District 7 in Northwest Laredo which includes the Midwest and Medline facilities and impacted neighborhoods and schools, expressed frustration with the company’s approach to the Laredo community.
“Midwest needs to come to the table and discuss how they’re going to fix the serious health concern that ethylene oxide poses to our community and our children,” Perez said.
EtO is a mutagenic DNA-damaging chemical. Long-term exposure has been linked to an increased risk of cancer of the white blood cells like non-Hodgkin lymphoma, lymphocytic leukemia, and myeloma as well as breast cancer. A 2016 EPA report found that it’s 60 times more toxic to children and 30 times more toxic to adults than previously estimated.
This summer, the EPA agency is set to propose a Clean Air Act rule that will enforce new pollution control requirements for commercial sterilizers - which Midwest and the state’s environmental agency (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) will have to comply with regardless of their current position. Midwest and the TCEQ have responded that Midwest’s high volume of emissions is allowed under the company’s state permit. The EPA, however, formally rejected TCEQ’s cancer risk assessment for ethylene oxide earlier this year.
“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 January.
Sheila Serna, RGISC Climate Science and Policy Director, has reached out to Midwest executives in Missouri to discuss potential solutions to the ongoing problem. Company officials have not responded to her requests for a meeting.
“We’re not targeting Midwest as a business,” Serna said. “We’re targeting the fact that Midwest often ranks as one of top EtO emitters in the nation. We need them to invest in fenceline air monitoring and reconsider the use of EtO in their business operations. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved the use of two other effective and less dangerous sterilants. When will Midwest make the switch?”