EPA inaction exposes vulnerable communities to cancer-causing ethylene oxide every day

US EPA plaque
The US Environmental Protection Agency faces a lawsuit for inaction that exposes millions to cancer-causing ethylene oxide every day. [Image: Nojustice-Canva]

Last week, Earthjustice—on behalf of Clean Power Lake County and other environmental and health advocacy groups—filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to take legally required action to protect the public from harmful carcinogenic air emissions from ethylene oxide (EtO) sterilization facilities.

The Clean Air Act directs the EPA to review its EtO standards every eight years. However, the agency has repeatedly missed this deadline—first in 2014 and again in April 2022.

Clean Power Lake County and other groups hope this lawsuit will compel EPA to finally act and protect vulnerable communities across the country.

Ethylene oxide is a colorless, typically odorless, flammable gas used to sterilize medical equipment and to help produce chemicals needed for antifreeze, plastics, detergents, and adhesives. It is one of the most toxic air pollutants EPA regulates. This toxic chemical is a known carcinogen to humans, especially when inhaled.

EPA updated ethylene oxide’s toxicity value in 2016 and admits the chemical is 60 times more toxic than previously estimated. Yet, despite knowing that ethylene oxide emitters pose an elevated cancer risk to nearby communities, EPA has not reviewed its rules for sterilizers since 2006.

“For too long, EPA has delayed updating the sterilizer rule while communities suffer unnecessary toxic exposure and unacceptable cancer risks,” said Earthjustice attorney Marvin Brown. “The Clean Air Act requires EPA to protect communities from the harmful effects of air pollution and ensure that industry emissions do not threaten public health. By failing to timely revise its sterilizer rule, EPA has left communities to fend for themselves against a deadly, cancer-causing chemical. No one should get cancer from the facilities that make sure that medical equipment is safe. We are calling on the EPA to finally remedy this injustice without further delay.”

Facilities that emit ethylene oxide are typically found in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, many already grappling with elevated toxic exposure and health risks from multiple forms of industrial pollution. Children are particularly sensitive to ethylene oxide’s harmful effects.

As each day passes, dozens of communities continue to wait on EPA to fulfill its legal obligations under the Clean Air Act.

“The EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment. They are failing my community and communities across the country with their inaction to regulate harmful air emissions from ethylene oxide facilities,” said Celeste Flores, steering committee member with Clean Power Lake County. “It’s unacceptable that everyday community members have been forced to file this suit in order for the EPA to be accountable and update their standards as required by law. Our rights have been violated and the EPA must do its job.”

Earthjustice filed the December 14 challenge on behalf of Communities Against Toxics, Clean Power Lake County, Rio Grande International Study Center, Sierra Club, and Union of Concerned Scientists

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