Chemical linked to high cancer rates 40-times more toxic than previously thought, EPA says

Memphians ask questions during an informational session with the EPA at Monumental Baptist Church on Oct. 18, 2022 in Memphis.

Ethylene oxide, a chemical medical officials say is linked to higher cancer rates, has been used at Sterilization Services of Tennessee since at least 1979, said the director of the Shelby County Health Department Dr. Michelle Taylor.

Sterilization Services of Tennessee, located in South Memphis on Florida Street, is a commercial sterilization facility that uses EtO to clean medical equipment. The EPA identified the facility as an elevated risk for those who live in the surrounding areas.

Along with introducing some background on Sterilization Services of Tennessee, including the facility being permitted since 1985, Taylor introduced a cancer study to compare what areas in Shelby County return higher cancer rates.

Critics and community activists say additional studies are not needed, though. In a Q&A portion of the evening meeting, Memphis Community Against Pollution co-founder Justin J. Pearson referenced previous cancer studies

“In 2013 a study came out by Dr. Jia Chunrong at the University of Memphis…Same professor, two months ago, released another study,” Pearson said in a community meeting hosted by the Environmental Protection Agency Tuesday evening. “We don’t need to wait. You want qualitative research? How many people here know somebody who has died of cancer or has been sick themselves?”

In the approximate four-square-mile area in South Memphis, the lifetime risk of cancer for the immediate area is 100 out of 1 million, according to the EPA. This means that if 1 million people are exposed to the sampled level of EtO for 24 hours a day for 70 years, 100 people are likely to develop cancer.

Daniel Blackman, EPA administrator for region 4, spoke to Memphians during an informational session at Monumental Baptist Church on Oct. 18, 2022 in Memphis.

Daniel Blackman, EPA administrator for region 4, spoke to Memphians during an informational session at Monumental Baptist Church on Oct. 18, 2022 in Memphis.

Those nearest to the facility face a lifetime cancer risk of 2,000 people out of 1 million.

Representatives from the EPA also spoke, emphasizing the numbers shown on the map are models and not realistic. They also said monitoring EtO regularly, the way ozone and particulate matter are, is not possible right now.

“The nature of the chemical itself makes it very hard to measure,” said Madeline Beal, the senior risk communication advisor for the EPA. “We can measure it at high levels…unfortunately, with the science, we cannot monitor EtO at levels we feel are safe. The best we can do is modeling because it helps us understand what we think the risk is.”

The EPA has monitored and regulated EtO for decades, with venting practices having regulations in 1994 as a way to limit the concentration of the chemical for the air surrounding a facility, with inhalation being the most common way for people to ingest EtO.

Sterilization Services of Tennessee uses three different venting practices, one of which has been unregulated by the EPA since 2001.

Between 1994 and 2001, all three practices—sterilization chamber vents, aeration room vents and chamber exhaust vents—were controlled by the EPA. However, in 2001, chamber exhaust vents, which are commonly called back vents, were deregulated.

The deregulation stemmed from some facilities overfeeding their monitoring machines in 1997, causing explosions at a few of the locations. The EPA conducted an investigation and, in 2001, stripped all regulations for back vents.

In South Memphis, over 80% of the emissions from Sterilization Services of Tennessee come from what are called “fugitive emissions,” which are any emissions coming from unregulated areas, such as windows, doors, and back vents.

The EPA’s newfound concern comes from 2016 data where they say the chemical is about forty times more toxic than previously thought. Caroline Freeman, the EPA’s region 4 air and radiation division director, said new regulations are coming, but would not specify what they would be.

A public comment period will be open, and the final rule could come as soon as 2023. Following that period would be a three-year period for existing commercial sterilizers, including Sterilization Services of Tennessee, to be compliant with those regulations.

Sterilization Services of Tennessee is part of a three-location chain of Sterilization Services, with the other two located in Richmond, Virginia, and Atlanta. It is the company’s first location, opening in 1976, and is the second largest of the three at 45,500 square feet.

Lucas Finton is a news reporter for The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @LucasFinton.

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: EPA says new regulations coming for cancer-causing chemical

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