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When We Fight, We Win!

By Sharon Franklin.

In July 2023, I wrote the blog, “There’s An Ethylene Oxide (EtO) Health Emergency in South Memphis, Tennessee.” In it, I discussed the air pollution created by the Sterilization Services of TN (SELC) in Memphis, Tennessee. According to an August report by Adrian Sainz from AP News, SELC will officially be closing its Memphis plant!

As background, SELC is a medical equipment sterilizing plant that has been emitting hazardous air pollution since 1976 (permitted to do this since 1985). Ethylene oxide (EtO) is used to clean catheters, syringes, pacemakers, plastic surgical gowns, and other items. On August 24, 2023, the Memphis Community Against Pollution, an environmental watchdog group requested a meeting. This meeting was in response to public concern about the chemical emissions and to petition the Shelby County Health Department for an emergency air pollution order.

Even the EPA understands that the plant’s use of EtO to sterilize medical equipment and materials could lead to cancer and other health risks. While short-term or infrequent exposure to EtO does not appear to pose a health risk, the EPA determined that long-term or lifetime exposure to the colorless and odorless gas could lead to a variety of health problems, including lymphoma and breast cancer. For 30 years, the EPA has regulated EtO emissions; however, in 2016 new scientific information revealed that the chemical is more toxic than previously reported. In April 2023, the EPA proposed limiting the use of EtO after finding a higher than expected cancer risk at facilities that use it for sterilizations.

The EPA claims that it is working with commercial sterilizers to take appropriate steps to reduce emissions. It said that its proposal will reduce EtO by roughly 80% by targeting 86 medical sterilization facilities across the country. The companies will also have to test for the antimicrobial chemical in the air and ensure their pollution controls are working properly. EPA Administrator Michael Regan stated that the “EPA is taking action to ensure communities are informed and engaged in [all] efforts to address ethylene oxide…” The agency further stated that “it is committed to addressing pollution concerns associated with [EtO] ‘in a comprehensive way that ensures facilities can operate safely in communities while also providing sterilized medical supplies.’”

Raul Garcia from Earthjustice argued that “[now] that EPA has new information on precisely where the worst health threats are, the agency must use its full authority to… require fenceline monitoring at these facilities [and] issue a strong new rule.” She also stated that, “No one should get cancer from facilities that are used to sterilize equipment in the treatment of cancer.”

Amanda Garcia, Senior Attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, recognized that the Sterilization Services of Tennessee closing the Memphis plant is “a major victory for nearby neighborhoods who have been fighting for cleaner air.” She is “pleased that [the community] may soon be able to breathe easier.”  

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There’s An Ethylene Oxide (EtO) Health Emergency in South Memphis, Tennessee

Photo credit: Karen Pulfer Focht/Tennessee Lookout

By Sharon Franklin.

For Rose Sims and Lettie White, residents of South Memphis, Tennessee, despite it being a sunny, spring day in their neighborhood, they make a point to stay inside as much as possible. This is because of the dangerous amounts of a toxic, cancer-causing gas, ethylene oxide (EtO), that is being emitted by the Sterilization Services of Tennessee, a medical equipment sterilization facility. EtO is linked to leukemia, lymphoma, breast cancer, and stomach cancer, and recently EPA announced that the colorless and odorless gas is 60 times more toxic than they previously thought. The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) recently reported on this environmental injustice issue.

Earlier this year, EPA officials held a meeting and cautioned that the Sterilization Services of Tennessee facility was creating an “‘elevated’” cancer risk for people living nearby.” At this meeting, scientists presented maps showing what areas face the highest risks, which, unfortunately for Ms. Sims and Ms. White, were where their homes fell. After receiving this information, Ms. White said she“was devastated;” “I used to go outside to plant my garden and to cut my yard. I can’t do that anymore.”  Ms. Sims said shewas afraid, frustrated, scared. “Now I go in and out of my house, but as far as cutting yards and just hanging out and enjoying and barbecuingand being with my family, I would never.”In the months since the meeting, Ms. Sims’ frustration and fear has grown while local health officials have refused to act.

How Has Sterilization Services of Tennessee and Shelby County Health Department Responded? 

For months, they have ignored calls to reduce the plant’s EtO pollution from the Memphis City Council, the Shelby County Commission, community organizations, and families living nearby. The plant continues to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even though similar facilities in other states have taken voluntary action to reduce ethylene oxide. 

What is EPA’s Position on Ethylene Oxide Protections?

In April, EPA took a key step toward better regulating EtO emissions in announcing a draft rule that aims to reduce fugitive EtO emissions by 80 percent. This rule would force facilities that releaseEtO to implement already-available technologies to better protect nearby communities. The draft rule was open for public comment until June 27, 2023. One comment to note is from the American Hospital Association (AHA) who offered comments stating, “With device sterilization capabilities already at or near capacity across the country, we strongly encourage the agency to consider employing its traditional three-year implementation timeline to the standards if made final. This will allow these facilities more time to come into compliance prior to enforcement in an effort to help prevent the closure, temporary or permanent, of any of these facilities.

What is the Community Saying?

KeShaun Pearson from Memphis Community Against Pollution said, “Sterilization Services of Tennessee is continuing this legacy of environmental injustice by ignoring community members’ pleas for relief… And by allowing the Sterilization Services facility to continue pumping toxic gas into the air, the Shelby County Health Department is sending the message that it’s okay to inflict harm on Black communities, because of discriminatory practices like redlining that allowed polluters to take over historic and vibrant Black neighborhoods.”

While the Shelby County Health Department drags its feet, residents like Ms. Sims can’t help but wonder if it is because Mallory Heights is in a predominantly Black neighborhood that is surrounded by polluting industrial facilities. Would the Sterilization Services of Tennessee still be releasing EtO if it was in another part of the county?   

SELC and Memphis Community Against Pollution sent a letter to Shelby County Health Department urging the agency to use its emergency powers to force the facility to lower its EtO emissions. However, the health department refused to act, even though “Memphis Muni. Code § 9-12-9(A) states where there is not a generalized condition of air pollution, the Health Officer may issue an emergency order if he ‘finds that emissions from the operation of one or more air contaminant sources is causing imminent danger to human health or safety.’ Id. § 9-12-9. The SELC and the Memphis Community Against Pollution concluded that the Shelby County Health Department not only can act, but must act to protect Memphis families from a health emergency.