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Ethylene Oxide – The Silent Killer

Ethylene Oxide – The Silent Killer

Ethylene oxide (EtO) is an invisible, odorless, flammable gas used to make a range of products, including textiles, plastics, antifreeze, detergents and adhesives. But because it penetrates cardboard, paper and plastic, one of EtO’s most common uses is to sterilize medical equipment. Unfortunately for those exposed, EtO also causes cancer. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Toxicology Program, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) all classify [e]thylene [o]xide as a known human carcinogen. The EPA has classified  EtO as a “known carcinogen” since 2016. According to OSHA, “chronic exposure [to EtO] has been associated with the occurrence of cancer, reproductive effects, mutagenic changes, neurotoxicity and sensitization.” More specifically, EtO has been associated with white blood cell cancers– including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, myeloma and lymphocytic leukemia – even breast cancer in women.

In August of 2018, the EPA released a National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) that identified 109 census tracts across the United States where cancer risks were elevated from exposure to EtO and other airborne toxins, with EtO being the largest component. West Virginia is among those states the EPA identified as having elevated cancer risk from exposure to EtO. Cancer clusters believed to be related to EtO exposure have been popping up across the country, unsurprisingly followed by litigation. 

Current standards allow more than 100 commercial sterilization facilities in 36 states to emit tens of thousands of pounds of EtO annually, and lawmakers and others are calling on the EPA to revise EtO standards under the Clean Air Act and to work with the FA to find alternatives to EtO sterilization. But the EPA has been aware of this issue for years and has done nothing to stop it. EPA was supposed to have released new proposed rules in May, but the current administration’s gutting of the EPA inspires little hope for any meaningful action on this important issue anytime soon.

EtO facilities are as practically invisible as the gas itself, often hidden in plain sight in largely nondescript warehouses or buildings with very short or absent smokestacks – making it much more difficult to determine whether you are in the crosshairs of EtO exposure. Nevertheless, it is important to make every effort to determine whether you or your loved ones are being exposed to EtO by your proximity to a facility making or using it. Union Carbide’s South Charleston, West Virginia facility, for instance, is a known emitter of EtO. And if you believe you have contracted cancer from, or been exposed to, EtO you should contact an experienced law firm right away to investigate a potential claim. 

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