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EPA seeks to use measure showing EtO more harmful than believed
Covington factory accused in 2020 of emitting more of cancer-causing chemical than reported
BD Plant
Flags fly outside the Covington medical sterilization facility of New Jersey-based Becton, Dickinson and Co. in August 2019. - photo by David Clemons

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants to continue relying on a measurement it used in 2016 that showed ethylene oxide (EtO) is significantly more harmful than previously understood in areas where it is emitted, including in Newton County.

EPA announced recently it will use the agency’s 2016, peer-reviewed Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) value of EtO which guides how dangerously the agency views the chemical and how strictly the EPA will regulate it going forward.

The federal agency also is seeking to stop using the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) risk value for ethylene oxide instead of the EPA’s 2016 value, according to information from the EPA. 

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Stonecrest, who is part of the bipartisan Congressional Ethylene Oxide Task Force, released a statement from his office and the task force about the EPA’s decision.

“I consider this the beginning of the process and an important first step, not the end,” said Johnson, whose 4th Congressional District includes part of Newton County. 

EtO is an industrial chemical used to sterilize medical devices. Since 2016, EtO has been deemed a “known carcinogen” and the release of the 2018 National Air Toxics Assessment identified several Illinois communities facing dangerously high EtO emissions, a news release stated.

Johnson referred to the BD Bard plant in Covington. State officials in early 2020 called for tighter regulation of EtO after public concerns about unreported releases of the cancer-causing chemical from BD Bard and a factory operated by Sterigenics in Cobb County.

He said, “Our communities in and around the ethylene oxide plant in Newton County deserve transparency and accountability — from both industry and government — and I will continue working as part of the task force to do everything I can to protect my constituents in Newton County and beyond."

Johnson said locking the 2016 value into agency regulations shows the EPA is "demonstrating commitment to preserving public health and protecting affected communities."

“As members of the bipartisan Congressional EtO Task Force, we have heard firsthand how harmful EtO is to impacted communities," Johnson said. "As a result, one of the Task Force’s top priorities has always been ensuring that the EPA upholds a strong standard in how they will regulate the chemical going forward. 

"The EPA’s decision ... to uphold the 2016 IRIS value, despite the industry pushing for a weaker standard, is a huge step forward for our constituents who have been impacted by EtO. 

"We applaud the EPA for listening and we look forward to continued collaboration with the agency to reduce the harmful effects of EtO on our communities going forward,” Johnson said.

BD and its predecessors have operated the facility for more than half a century, since 1967, in Newton County. It employs a total of about 1,000 at three different locations in northeast Covington.

Two Newton County residents alleged in September 2020 lawsuits that longtime exposure to the chemical emitted by BD led to their cancer diagnoses.

But Georgia EPD studies have shown the EtO levels in the air surrounding its Covington plant is no higher than found in rural areas of south Georgia, company officials have noted.

EPA is proposing to reconsider the August 2020 National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) for chemical plants that fall under the source category of Miscellaneous Organic Chemical (MON) Manufacturing. 

The federal agency also is proposing to decline to use the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) risk value for ethylene oxide instead of the EPA’s 2016 value, according to information from the EPA. 

“People living near chemical plants are increasingly concerned about exposure to ethylene oxide, and the science shows it is a potent air toxic posing serious health risks,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. 

“Today we reinforce and advance EPA’s commitment to protect overburdened communities by following the best available science and data. Under my watch, I will do everything I can to listen to folks that are hurting and to take action to protect them.” 

The NESHAP for the MON manufacturing industry established emission limits and work practice standards for new and existing miscellaneous organic chemical manufacturing process units and other operations and equipment and implemented section 112(d) of the Clean Air Act.

The hazardous air pollutants emitted from MON manufacturing facilities include ethylene oxide, toluene, methanol, xylene, hydrogen chloride, and methylene chloride — to which exposure may cause adverse health effects ranging from lung irritation to cancer, according to the EPA.

The final rule will reduce hazard pollutant emissions by 16,800 tons per year for existing facilities that manufacture miscellaneous organic chemicals, agency officials said.

EPA also is moving ahead with actions under the federal Clean Air Act that will address air emissions of ethylene oxide, officials said.  "The agency is currently undertaking a review of a rule for commercial sterilizers which will consider risk, and expects to issue a proposal in 2022," they said. "EPA intends to use the 2016 IRIS value in the upcoming proposed rule for sterilizers.  

"The agency has been collecting information about the source category, including Information Collection Requests (ICR) that are part of the Clean Air Act," EPA officials said. "The deadline for commercial sterilizers to submit their most recent ICR response was November 2021. EPA is evaluating that data now."

Officials said the EPA is proposing the following in a reconsideration action:

• Not to change its decision to use EPA’s 2016 IRIS value for ethylene oxide when assessing risk for the source category in the 2020 MON final rule, as the 2016 ethylene oxide IRIS assessment remains the best available science;

• To decline to use the TCEQ risk value for ethylene oxide instead of the EPA’s 2016 IRIS value, after careful consideration of the TCEQ risk value for ethylene oxide.

EPA will accept comment on the two issues addressed in this reconsideration action for 45 days after publication in the Federal Register. EPA is seeking comment only on the two identified petition issues.

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