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The EPA flexes muscle, targeting cancer-causing emissions from chemical and sterilization plants

aerial of chemical plant
Image Credit: Marcin Jozwiak // Unsplash

Last summer the Supreme Court dealt a harsh blow to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), severely restricting its ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, thus making it much harder for the agency to combat the climate crisis.

Now, the EPA is fighting back, and flexing its muscle to protect people and the planet. While its most recent proposed measures can be challenged, the EPA is clearly not backing down when it comes to combatting climate change.

Most recently, the EPA proposed “the most ambitious pollution standards ever” for cars and trucks, potentially drastically ramping up the EV revolution, and this week, the agency also made two new moves to tackle pollution, this time aiming at cancer-causing chemical plants, and sterilization facilities that while are vital to sterilizing equipment for modern medicine, cause fatal levels of pollution.

The first move, announced last Thursday, proposed much-needed updates to the Clean Air Act, and according to the EPA, they significantly reduce emissions of toxic and other harmful air pollution from chemical plants.

In fact, the agency reports that the updates would dramatically reduce the number of people with cancer risks related to air toxins. These people are most likely to live in low-income or Black and brown communities historically infiltrated by these chemical plants.

“Everyone in this country deserves clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and the opportunity to live a healthy life,” the EPA’s administrator, Michael Regan, said announcing the rules in Lousiana.

If enacted, both proposed rules could cut more than 6,000 tons of toxic air pollution a year, meaning big changes for approximately 200 plants across the country that make synthetic organic chemicals, with most of these plants owned by large oil and gas corporations.

In addition to these limits, the EPA’s proposal also updates specific provisions of the Clean Air Act, a 1960s-era air emissions federal regulation, that has not been majorly updated since 1990.

Together, the rules would update emission standards for more than 200 chemical plants and eliminate illegal loopholes, which according to the nonprofit legal organization, Earthjustice, the “industry has taken advantage of by spewing unlimited amounts of toxic air pollution without consequence during periods of startup, shutdown, and malfunction.”

The rule comes just as Exxon recently released its 2023 Sustainability Report which details its plans to open up nine new advanced chemical recycling plants, which they say will enable plastics recycling, but as environmental advocates say, plants like this only release hazardous gasses resulting in health issues, as well as contaminate water with PFAS, aka forever chemicals.

According to the EPA’s Fact Sheet, “when fully implemented,” the proposal would reduce 6,053 tons of air toxics emissions a year from the plants in Texas and Louisiana, along with plants in other parts of the country, including the Ohio River Valley.”

Two of Exxon’s new plants are in Texas, with an additional one planned for Louisiana, the home of a plant-burdened community, St. John the Baptist Parish, already nicknamed Cancer Alley. This chemical plant adds to the plethora of medical sterilization facilities already throughout the South, especially along the Gulf Coast.

“The proposed rule would also reduce 23,500 tons of smog-forming volatile organic compounds a year,” the EPA reports.

The first rule specifically targets two toxic chemicals known as ethylene oxide (EtO) and chloroprene, which the EPA says are among those known or suspected to cause cancer and can have serious health effects even in the smallest quantities.

The second rule doubles down, focusing on these chemicals in sterilization facilities. According to the EPA, 1 in 10 people who work in these facilities is at risk of cancer.

“Today’s proposals are an important first step in remedying an injustice that affects far too many communities,” Earthjustice attorney Marvin Brown said in a statement.

“Too many workers and community members have gotten cancer from facilities that are supposed to make sure that our medical equipment is safe. We know, and EPA knows, that ethylene oxide poses a dire cancer risk to anyone who breathes it in.”

Both of these chemicals are known to have increased harm to children, as their bodies are still growing and these chemicals can cause direct damage to DNA cells, both the EPA and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) say.

In Cancer Alley specifically, the airborne concentrations of EtO and chloroprene have a 200 times greater cancer risk than EPA's “acceptable” levels. These two chemicals alone have burdened the African-American community in St. John the Baptist Parish with some of the highest cancer rates in America.

“These crucial standards will cover facilities across the nation, from Texas’s Gulf Coast and Louisiana’s Cancer Alley to West Virginia’s Chemical Valley,” Earthjustice attorney Adam Kron said in a statement.

“Today’s proposed air toxics standards mark a critical first step in protecting communities from our nation’s largest and most hazardous chemical plants, including emitters of ethylene oxide, chloroprene, and 1,3-butadiene,”

The latter gas Kron refers to is primarily used in the processing of petroleum, and evidence shows that it can cause both lymph and blood cancer in humans and various kinds in animals.

In 2022, EPA published a list of 23 sterilization facilities in U.S. states and Puerto Rico with EtO emissions contributing to cancer risks. The UCS expanded the analysis to include 100 facilities, and as the union’s study revealed, 14 million people live near these facilities, with more than 10,000 schools and childcare centers located, within five miles of more than 100 facilities that emit EtO.

Now, the proposed regulations have a chance to drastically cut the amount these facilities are emitting, and by March 29, 2024, the EPA is scheduled to have a finalized ruling.

While chemical sterilization for medical equipment is essential, parts of the healthcare and chemical industries worry that it will affect hospitals and clinics, forcing treatment delays, because of supply risks. However, as EPA spokesman Tim Carroll told the Washington Post, the effect on supply will not be as drastic as the industry claims.

“While the proposal would reduce emissions to the atmosphere of ethylene oxide, any reduction in the production output of ethylene oxide from the chemical manufacturers affected by today’s proposal is expected to be under 1%,” he said. “Given this very small drop in output, EPA expects impacts on the supply chain from this proposal to be minimal.”

For the 1% supply decrease, the EPA’s community assessment shows elevated cancer risk in affected areas will drop by 96%.

But Earthjustice says that the action necessary doesn’t stop at the proposed rules.

“While EPA must move quickly to reduce ethylene oxide emissions, it must go further and ensure that frontline communities have the data to know when their air is safe through fenceline monitoring,” Brown said. “And the agency must move quickly to reduce and phase out the use of ethylene oxide for sterilizing products that can be safely sterilized by other means.”


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