Over 14 million Americans, including children, are living near facilities that emit ethylene oxide, a colorless cancer-causing gas, with California having the most such facilities, new research has found.
Ethylene oxide (EtO) is emitted by facilities sterilizing medical equipment and dried food products as well as chemical plants.
A study by the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found that roughly 14.2 million people in the United States and Puerto Rico live within five miles of 104 EtO-emitting facilities. More than 10,000 schools and childcare centers are within these areas.
“California (15 facilities), Texas (nine), Puerto Rico (seven), Florida (six), Minnesota (six), and Georgia (five) are the states and territories with the most commercial sterilizers and EtO-emitting MON [Miscellaneous Organic Chemical Manufacturing] facilities,” a Feb. 7 report by UCS said.
Chronic exposure to EtO can lead to cancers of white blood cells. In women, exposure can result in breast cancer, and in children it can make them susceptible to DNA mutations.
In addition, people can also suffer from nausea, headaches, vomiting, and respiratory issues.
The average cancer risk close to the 104 facilities comes to 60 additional cases per million individuals, which is three times the national average. In these places, ethylene oxide emissions make up about a third of the total cancer risk.
The United States saw an estimated 1.9 million new cancer cases and 609,360 cancer deaths in 2022, according to the American Cancer Society.
Kentucky is believed to be the state with the highest cancer rates, according to an analysis of CDC data. While there were 436 new cancer cases for 100,000 individuals a year on average across the United States, Kentucky had 503 cases a year.
Kentucky was followed by Louisiana, Arkansas, West Virginia, and New Jersey in the top five spots, each of them having over 475 cases per 100,000 individuals annually.
The UCS team also identified “sterilizer hotspots,” or communities living within five miles of two or more commercial sterilizers.
The study found that 28 percent of sterilizers are located in such hotspots, meaning the chances of people in these regions being exposed to multiple EtO sources are high.
Three of the hotspots are home to facilities that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has already identified as having an elevated cancer risk from ethylene oxide emissions. These are in Virginia, Maryland, and Colorado.
UCS also proposed that multiple facilities may be violating the Clean Air Act, which seeks to control air pollution in the country.
“According to the UCS analysis, eight of the 46 commercial sterilizers identified by the EPA as contributing to elevated cancer risks, in hotspots, or both have been in noncompliance with the Clean Air Act at least once during the last 12 quarters or been subject to informal or formal EPA enforcement actions in the last five years,” the report stated.
Pollution and Poverty
The UCS study found that out of the 14.2 million people living within five miles of at least one polluting facility, 4.8 million were individuals with low incomes.
Other studies have also found a link between toxic pollution and the poverty levels of a community. A study published in the European Economic Review in April 2021 conducted by the Lancaster University Management School and Texas Tech University looked into potentially polluting firms operating in Texas.
It discovered that the relative frequency of toxic releases decreased as household income went up. Firms were found to reduce their toxic releases as well as raise spending on waste management if located in higher-income regions. The study found lower-income regions to be disproportionately subject to toxic releases.
In addition, the majority of toxic pollution in the United States has been identified to be coming from a small number of facilities, according to a June 2020 study published in Access Science which looked into 25,000 manufacturing facilities in 322 industries between 1998 and 2012.
The study found that 1,116 facilities, making up just 4.4 percent of the total facilities in the study, accounted for 50 percent or more of their industry’s total toxic pollutant release. In 81 industries, 10 percent or fewer of the facilities were identified as generating 90 percent of the pollutants deemed to be hazardous.