The EPA has done the work to understand the health impacts of ethylene oxide. Why are they waiting to inform the communities most at risk?

Environmental agencies aren't protecting Texans from a cancer-causing chemical

June 25th, 2020

The EPA has done the work to understand the health impacts of ethylene oxide. Why are they waiting to inform the communities most at risk?

Suppose you’ve ever heard of ethylene oxide. Suppose you know it’s bad for your health.

Suppose you want to know more, and you go down the rabbit hole that is the Environmental Protection Agency website, and you have time, buckets of it, to click on link after link and the brainpower to compare parts per billion with micrograms per cubic meter and the willpower to keep clicking until you find the agency’s risk assessment.

If you get all the way there, the EPA tells you: There is no “level for ethylene oxide below which air quality is considered OK.”

What is ethylene oxide? Used to sterilize medical equipment and make a range of products, including plastics, the colorless, flammable gas is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer and other lymphoid cancers. In 2016, the EPA concluded that ethylene oxide is 30 times more carcinogenic than they thought.

According to the agency's most recent National Air Toxics Assessment, the national average for upper-bound cancer risk is 30 cancers for every one million people. Because of ethylene oxide, though, the risk in 15 Census tracts in Texas — in Harris, Webb and Jefferson counties — is 100 cancers in a million people.

In one Census tract in La Porte, it’s 312 cancers in a million people.

Ethylene oxide can even damage DNA. But if you’re like me and you live in one of these counties in Texas, all part of EPA’s Region 6, home to 10 of the 25 most dangerous facilities that emit ethylene oxide, you’re on your own. The EPA isn’t using these assessments to develop any enforceable protections.

And there appears to be no plan to tell you about any of this.

Outrage about outreach

The Clean Air Act requires that the EPA routinely review air toxics like ethylene oxide and assess how they are being controlled.

Looking at this year’s review, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General (think: the watchdog’s watchdog) found that the agency failed to inform the majority of residents who live near those 25 dangerous facilities about the elevated cancer risks they are facing. (Worse, the facilities contributing to the risk in La Porte were not even included.)

Doing so would have fulfilled part of the EPA’s mission to ensure that “communities, individuals, businesses and state, local and tribal governments” have access to information to adequately manage their health, the report concluded. In 2018, the EPA publicly recognized the need to do that.

But for the residents who live near 16 of the 25 “high-priority facilities,” including the Shell Technology Center in Houston and Huntsman in Port Neches, the agency didn’t, the inspector general concluded, writing, “the EPA does not have plans to hold public meetings or otherwise directly inform residents.”

“Protecting public health from toxic air pollutants is one of the EPA’s most important responsibilities,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former head of the U.S. EPA’s Office of Regulatory Enforcement. “Helping the public understand what we know and don’t know about the risks from toxins like ethylene oxide comes with that.”

EPA staff in Region 6, which includes Texas, four neighboring states and 66 tribes, told the inspector general they would “collaborate with states on community meetings and further public outreach” and were told “state agency personnel would take the lead.”

But Texas “state agency personnel had not communicated with the communities near the high-priority facilities" as of January 2020, the inspector general concluded.

Where's TCEQ?

So, what had the Texas state agency been doing? According to a FOIA request by the Sierra Club detailed by The Intercept, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had met — in person — with representatives from Dow Chemical, the largest producer of ethylene oxide in the county, the American Chemistry Council and other industry consultants. Representatives from Shell, BASF Chemicals and Balchem joined by phone.

Together, these firms released more than 200,000 pounds of ethylene oxide in the past six years. Shortly after, TCEQ proposed quadrupling the acceptable threshold for exposure — a number that was 50 times less protective of health than the standard they had set just two years before.

In May, TCEQ finalized a proposal to significantly weaken the threshold, writing that the cancer-causing chemical is “safer than previously thought.”

This determination, said Dr. Elena Craft, senior director for climate and health with Environmental Defense Fund, “fails to address the full threat of risk. Given that Texas is responsible for nearly half the ethylene oxide pollution in the country, Texans need TCEQ to do more, not less, to protect them. It is unacceptable that the agency would spend taxpayer money to undermine important safeguards of people’s health.”

‘I didn’t get anything from them’

In Harris County, the brunt of this negligence falls on communities of color and low wealth, largely on the county’s highly industrialized east side, like La Porte, Manchester, Galena Park, Pasadena and Deer Park.

After she retired last April, Jana Pellusch, who lives in Deer Park, decided to use her free time to do something about it. A former union representative with United Steelworkers, she’s been rallying local union support to hold TCEQ accountable.

“Months ago,” Pellusch said, when she first heard about the problem in Texas, “I went on the site where the EPA was talking about ethylene oxide, and they said ‘sign up for updates,’ and I signed up.”

She said, “But I didn’t get anything from them.”

Pellusch has since shown up to give public comments at meetings with the Pasadena, Deer Park and La Porte city councils. “Not that they have direct responsibility for something like this, because they make it very clear to you that they don’t,” she said, but they “need to know what decisions the regulatory agencies, state, national and otherwise, are making that are affecting our communities.”

TCEQ did not inform the affected city’s councils about the proposed regulatory change. Neither did the EPA. “EPA needs to fix that, and not wait for Texas to decide when and where it’s OK to talk to people about EPA’s own scientific research and what the federal agency plans to do to minimize ethylene oxide risks,” Schaeffer said.

Now what?

In early April, Air Alliance Houston and 15 other community organizations and advocates sent a letter to the EPA asking how they plan to respond to the inspector general’s report, which urged "prompt action needed."

They waited for two months. Then, EPA replied that they will be “continuing to work” with TCEQ — the very agency that adopted the weaker threshold after meeting with the chemical companies and lobbying groups. Dr. Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, said, “We don’t have a state agency behaving in a way that suggests that public health is their primary focus.”

Still, even though the EPA is actively seeking to weaken other standards for particle pollution, mercury, carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles and perchlorate, which is linked to brain damage in children, they have done much of the hard work necessary to understand the threat of ethylene oxide, she said.

They’ve assessed it. They’ve compiled a list of 25 facilities that pose the greatest risks. It’s all right there on the internet, after all.

“Now, they have to get over their biases, act on the science and hold polluters accountable,” Nelson said. “When people talk about systemic racism, this is what they mean. The actions of these agencies show that they continue to devalue the lives of people of color. We are demanding that they start.”

Vázquez is a student at Yale University, where she is an associate editor for Broad Recognition, the undergraduate feminist publication. She can be found on Twitter @capaciousmood.

Take Action

  1. Learn more about how TCEQ made ethylene oxide seem safer than it is
  2. Read the Houston Chronicle's editorial on the crisis of confidence in TCEQ
  3. Explore a map of the country's 'Toxic 100' industrial polluters

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