The Pulse

EPA notifies three NC facilities they could be required to report use of cancer-causing chemical that’s emitted into the air

By: - October 15, 2021 11:05 am
Sterigenics, represented by the purple cross on this map, is within one mile of Winget Park Elementary School. (Map: EPA EJ Screening Tool)

Three facilities in North Carolina could be required to report their use of a cancer-causing chemical to the EPA, the agency announced yesterday.

Andersen Products in Haw River, Andersen Scientific in Morrisville, and Sterigenics in Charlotte are among 31 facilities nationwide that the EPA is considering to require reports on their usage of ethylene oxide, a hazardous air pollutant. Data about emissions and usage would be reported to the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory. Also known as TRI, this is a public database of facilities, the chemicals the use, their emissions and discharges to the environment, and other information.

Some of these facilities, including Sterigenics, are also being considered for ethylene glycol reporting.

Ethylene oxide is a flammable, colorless gas used to make other chemicals that are used in making a range of products, including antifreeze, textiles, plastics, detergents and adhesives. Ethylene oxide also is used to sterilize equipment and plastic devices that cannot be sterilized by steam, such as medical equipment.

Long-term exposure to ethylene oxide has been linked to lymphatic cancer and breast cancer. It can irritate the eyes, skin, nose, throat, and lungs, and harm the brain and nervous system, causing effects such as headaches, memory loss and numbness, according to the EPA.

In 2018, a Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook, Ill., was found to have emitted large amounts of the ethylene oxide into the air. The emissions drifted over a neighborhood and a high school; the EPA found that residents within a mile and a half of the plant had up to 10 times a greater risk of developing cancer. Six workers at the high school, just a mile away, developed either breast cancer or lymphoma.

The company subsequently closed the plant.

The EPA’s recent action to select additional sterilization facilities for monitoring and reporting is based on their usage of ethylene oxide, the agency said, upward of 10,000 pounds — or 5 tons per year.

The EPA also selected these facilities based on other factors, including their proximity to highly populated areas, their history of releases of ethylene oxide and ethylene glycol, and other factors the Administrator Michael Regan determined were appropriate, such as the location of nearby schools and communities, especially those with potential environmental justice concerns.

In Charlotte, the Sterigenics plant is in an industrial park on the city’s southwest side, at 18021 Withers Cove Park Drive. The plant previously reported it released 850 pounds of ethylene oxide emissions to the TRI in 2016. Sterigenics has not reported emissions since, because, the EPA said, the facility may have determined it was not legally obligated to continue reporting to TRI after that time.

According to the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening tool, 5,572 people live within a mile of the plant, two-thirds of them persons of color. Winget Park Elementary School is a mile away.

Andersen Products in Haw River, represented by the purple cross. (Map: EJ Screening Tool)

Andersen Products, 3154 Caroline Drive in Haw River, is in a more sparsely populated area that is predominantly white, although a portion of the one-mile radius lies within Occaneechi-Saponi tribal lands; 38% of the households are low-income.


The one-mile radius of Andersen Scientific, near RDU International Airport, extends into Lake Crabtree County Park. (Map: EPA EJ Screening Tool)

Andersen Scientific, 1001 Aviation Parkway, is near the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. However, of the 226 people who live within a mile of the facility, 60% are individuals of color, including many of Asian descent.

The facilities have 30 days to respond to EPA with information that the agency could use to weigh its decision. The EPA said it intends to notify these facilities of its final decision following the 30-day response period; the agency will then issue an order about the reporting and monitoring requirements.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.