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Pollution

US EPA should tell people about ethylene oxide risks promptly, internal watchdog says

Inspector general finds agency hasn’t reached out to those living near 9 chemical plants

by Cheryl Hogue
April 3, 2020

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Credit: Shutterstock

The US Environmental Protection Agency needs to tell people who live near facilities with significant ethylene oxide emissions that they likely have a higher risk of cancer, the EPA’s internal watchdog says.

These include communities around 14 chemical manufacturing plants, most in Louisiana and Texas, the EPA Office of Inspector General (OIG) says in a March 31 report.

Ethylene oxide, a flammable and colorless gas used as a basic chemical building block, is a carcinogen if inhaled.

The OIG report finds that the EPA has conducted outreach to communities near ethylene oxide–emitting chemical plants in Missouri and South Carolina. The agency had plans to engage with communities near 2 plants in West Virginia and 1 in Delaware during the first half of this year. But the EPA had no plans for outreach to neighborhoods around 5 chemical facilities in Louisiana, 3 in Texas, and 1 in Wisconsin, the internal watchdog says.

Chemical plants posing greatest community risk from ethylene oxide emissions
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The US Environmental Protection Agency and state environmental agencies have begun outreach in communities near two chemical plants. The EPA has plans for community engagement near three others and has done no community outreach near nine plants, the agency's Office of Inspector General says.
Source: US EPA Office of Inspector General.

The concern over ethylene oxide emissions began in 2018, when the agency determined that ethylene oxide raised cancer risks of those living near certain industrial facilities. The analysis showed that lifetime cancer risk in some US census tracts, which collectively are home to half a million people, was significantly higher than the national average.

As part of the study, the EPA identified 25 facilities with emission levels that, under the Clean Air Act, do not sufficiently protect public health and require additional action by the agency to reduce risk. Besides the 14 chemical plants, there are 11 facilities that sterilize medical equipment using ethylene oxide.

The EPA tells C&EN that it is verifying the results of the 2018 assessment before it launches risk communication with communities. “The OIG is recommending that unverified data be used for risk communication purposes,” the agency says. EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler has asked the inspector general to withdraw the report.

Meanwhile, “No one’s telling anyone about what’s going on in their neighborhoods” around the Texas facilities, says Neil Carman, clean air director at the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter. “People have a right to know.”

A pending EPA proposal would require some large chemical plants to trim emissions of ethylene oxide by about 9 metric tons per year. The agency is under a court deadline to finalize that regulation, which applies to a category under the Clean Air Act called manufacturers of miscellaneous chemicals. That deadline was recently moved from March 13 to May 29.

The inspector general’s report finds the EPA has not yet started action to control ethylene oxide emissions from other types of chemical plants. The remaining facilities are classified as manufacturers of synthetic organic chemical or as producers of polyether polyols.

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