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Outrage raised over perceived EPA inaction

Outrage raised over perceived EPA inaction

By Gabriel Rodriguez
Bridge Staff Writer
Published Monday, Nov. 14, 2022

During their first combined meeting regarding the health dangers of ethylene oxide, Laredo and EPA representatives were met by cries from the audience. The Sept. 15 meeting centered around reported pollution from the Midwest Sterilization Corporation at its Laredo facility.

Environmental Protection Agency representatives insisted they would take action to protect the Laredo residents’ health, yet audience members called the actions neither timely nor substantial.

According to a Dec. 27, 2021, investigative article by The Texas Tribune and ProPublica, the EPA began its look into the then-theory that EtOs caused cancer in 2002. By 2006, the agency assessed that “the chemical was significantly more carcinogenic than the agency had previously concluded and especially damaging to children,” The Texas Tribune reported. In a 2006 letter, then-president of MSC, Audry E. Eldridge, called the EPA’s findings flawed.

The Ethylene Oxide Sterilization Association, partially founded by Eldridge, lobbied that the chemical was “thousands of times less than portrayed in EPA’s risk estimates.”

Midwest Sterlization building
Marco Villarreal | Bridge
The Midwest Sterlization Corporation in Laredo is under heat from the Environmental Protection Agency for ethylene oxide pollution and its related health risks.

As a result, further studies lasted another decade. The Texas Tribune reports that, “In 2016, the EPA published the final version of its assessment. It concluded that ethylene oxide was 30 times more carcinogenic to people who continuously inhale it as adults and 50 times more carcinogenic to those who are exposed since birth than the agency previously thought.” They found the chemical alters human DNA, increasing the risk for cancers like leukemia; it is also “particularly harmful to children because their developing bodies can’t mend the genetic damage as effectively as adult bodies.”

Meanwhile, as the decade-long study continued, the Laredo sterilization facility expanded. According to ProPublica, “The facility … emitted far more ethylene oxide than any other sterilizer plant in the country that reports emissions to the EPA.”

During the Sept. 15 meeting in the Center for the Fine and Performing Arts Recital Hall, the seats were lined with students, city employees, concerned residents and members of the Laredo Clean Air Coalition—founded in 2021 by the Rio Grande International Study Center—and other concerned groups in Webb County to raise awareness of the environmental and health damages caused by the release of EtOs from MSC’s facility, which began operation in 2005. The Clean Air Coalition in particular took great efforts to promote the meeting, distributing posters around various locations in Laredo.

The meeting began with EPA representatives laying out the risks of EtO, the increased chances of cancer it can cause to individuals exposed to it over a prolonged period of time (children and infants were particularly highlighted), the affected areas (primarily surrounding the Midwest Sterilization Corporation, which includes multiple residential neighborhoods), and the actions the agency is taking to reduce the risks to Laredoans.

The EPA’s 2016 ethylene oxide report did not immediately become legally enforceable until its new regulations were completed. Many states cracked down on industrial facilities emitting the chemical, according to The Texas Tribune, “… through lawsuits, stricter state regulations, air monitoring and cancer cluster studies. But Texas went in the other direction, becoming the only state to officially reject the agency’s conclusions.” In 2017, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality reviewed EPA’s science, ruling “the chemical was significantly less toxic than the federal agency had found.”

Tensions rose higher during the Sept. 15 meeting, however, once the Q&A portion began.

“It’s very important to know that that data that [the EPA is] using … is purely self-reported data by the company. There’s nothing to verify,” audience member Tricia Cortez claimed. This concern was elaborated by Sheila Cerna, another concerned resident and former Texas Commission on Environmental Quality employee, who said the equipment MSC used to monitor its EtO emissions “was not properly measuring for three years.”

At multiple points, EPA representatives were unable to speak due to shouts of anger and frustration from the audience, especially regarding their statement that action would be taken in about three years. When pressed about taking action sooner, or enacting more severe penalties on the corporation, the representatives expressed sympathy but could only say, “We don’t have the authority.”

EPA officials urged concerned residents to visit https://www.epa.gov/eto/laredo for up-to-date information on actions being taken regarding the issue, and the opportunity to weigh in on upcoming legislation and regulations relevant to the release of EtOs in the area.

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