Ethylene Oxide Adds to Toxic Burden for Memphis Residents

February 27, 2023 | 2:23 pm
Memphis at nightLuca Sartoni/Flickr
Derrick Z. Jackson

Rose Sims has lived in South Memphis, Tennessee, for 25 years. She loves the stability of her block, with many homes owned by retired neighbors. Sundays come with aromas of dinners made by grandmothers wafting down the street. Weekends have men out washing cars and cutting lawns. On a good air day, people wave at each other from porches. 

“I like where I am because I know everyone,” she says.

Yet, Sims, 58, a retired workforce manager at the Internal Revenue Service, agonizes that she needs to move; she literally fears that the air she breathes could kill her. Her South Memphis neighborhood is nestled in one of the nation’s most infamous industrial zones. Her neighborhood and adjoining zip codes are home to about 90 facilities listed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Toxic Release Inventory.

They include the nastiness of oil and coal tar refineries; hazardous waste storage and treatment facilities; and companies making or handling asphalt, concrete, fertilizers, paint, pharmaceuticals, plastics, solvents, appliances, furniture coatings, laminates, animal feed, and automotive parts. Several are owned by corporate titans such as Valero, Nucor, Sherwin-Williams, General Electric, Owens Corning, Exxon Mobil, and Land o’ Lakes. 

With such a high concentration of chemical plants, Sims said that, in her 25 years there, hardly a week has gone by without some kind of odor. “Somedays you can see the smog, some days, you can’t tell where the smells are coming from. It just ain’t right. We’ve been dumped on all our lives.”

In the past two years alone, South Memphis residents defeated a crude oil pipeline that would have slashed through the community to provide more profits for Fortune 500 companies Valero and Plains All American Pipeline. But that victory was quickly deflated by the roar of belching diesel trucks moving millions of tons of coal ash through the community from a defunct Tennessee Valley Authority power plant. The removal of the ash was out of fears of poisonous cadmium, arsenic and mercury seeping into Memphis’s drinking water.

But the 120 truckloads of ash a day are going to a landflll in South Memphis, continuing the nation’s history of disproportionately siting hazardous waste treatment, storage and disposal facilities in communities of color. While Tennessee is 73 percent White, a 2021 study by researchers from the University of California Berkeley and UC Davis found that 53 percent of the population living near hazardous facilities are of color.  

Justin Pearson, a community activist who helped lead the fight against the pipeline and was elected this year to the state legislature at the age of 28, called the onslaught of pollution a “slow lynching.”

Attention turns to ethylene oxide threat

Incredibly, though, all those polluting factories are not the most urgent reason driving Sims to the brink of moving. The pollutant bedeviling her and her neighbors is one they learned about just last year. It’s colorless and is emitted without the cacophonic clanging of heavy industry.

It is ethylene oxide, also known as EtO, a gas spewing out of a facility run by Sterilization Services of Tennessee, which uses it to sterilize medical equipment. The EPA considers ethylene oxide emissions to be cancer causing. In 2016, the agency concluded that the gas is 60 times more toxic than previously estimated, causing many communities that had never given facilities that use ethylene oxide facilities much thought—at least  compared to refineries, coal-fired power plants, and hazardous waste—to take fresh stock of the unusually high levels of disease they were seeing.

The most publicized example to date comes from the Chicago suburb of Willowbrook, Illinois. A 2018 federal analysis said the cancer risk from ethylene oxide emitted from a Sterigenics medical sterilization plant there constituted a “public health hazard.” And last year, a Cook County jury awarded a Willowbrook breast cancer survivor $363 million for her exposure to ethylene oxide from the now-shuttered facility. In January, Sotera Health, the parent company of Sterigenics, agreed to a $408 million settlement with as many as 870 other people who blame their cancers, miscarriages, and other serious health issues on ethylene oxide.

While Willowbrook, a predominately white suburb, was able to muster local and state support to shut down Sterigenics, there are still nearly 100 facilities around the nation using ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment and spices. According to a 2022 analysis, nearly a quarter of them are listed by the EPA as presenting an elevated cancer risk that could result in at least 100 additional cases per million people.

Millions of people, thousands of schools at risk

One of these higher risk facilities is the Sterilization Services of Tennessee plant near Rose Sims’s house. The level of emissions from this facility is so high that people who live closest to it face a cancer risk of 2,000 additional cases per one million people.   

The Memphis plant is among those highlighted by my colleagues at the Union of Concerned Scientists in a new report on ethylene oxide, Invisible Threat, Inequitable Impact. UCS did the analysis because the EPA last updated its ethylene oxide regulations 17 years ago and the agency is nearly a decade late in issuing new rules to slash emissions in line with much-better-known cancer and health risks. With the absence of adequate federal regulation over these years, the sterilization industry and its emissions have expanded in many densely populated areas.

UCS estimates that today some 14.2 million people live within five miles of two types of facilities that emit ethylene oxide, including sterilizers. More than 10,000 schools and childcare facilities are situated within these five-mile zones. Children are particularly sensitive to ethylene oxide exposure as it can damage their DNA, which divides more rapidly for them than for adults.   

Ethylene oxide emissions in the census tract where Sterilization Services is located in South Memphis are responsible for nearly 82 percent of the estimated cancer risk from toxic air pollutants, according to Darya Minovi, lead author of the UCS analysis (UCS is also a partner, along with several other environmental and grassroots groups, in a lawsuit pressuring the EPA to come up with new, stricter ethylene oxide standards for sterilizers).

More than 130,000 people live within five miles of the Sterilization Services facility near Rose Sims. Scores of schools and childcare facilities lie within the zone too. Typical of the skewed demographics of who lives within five miles of ethylene oxide facilities, the residents of South Memphis are disproportionately people of color (87 percent) and low income (57 percent).

The Sterilization Service plant has been around since 1976. It was hit with two EPA enforcement actions in 2021, resulting in $9,857 in fines—an amount that adds up to less than pennies in a $4.5 billion global medical sterilization services market.

But it was only last summer that the EPA brought the plant’s dangers fully to the attention of South Memphis residents. For Sims, many illnesses among her relatives and friends suddenly made sense. A major noncancerous effect of ethylene oxide exposure, according to the federal government, can be “compromised respiratory function.”

Many neighbors frequently complain of sinus issues and bronchitis. Asthma runs rampant among the people Sims knows, including her own two children and grandchild. She said her son was hospitalized repeatedly for respiratory problems. “I can’t even explain how many times I spent the wee hours in the emergency room,” Sims said. “Then we’d come home, and I was up every four hours making sure he was breathing. It was so tiring.”  

Then there is cancer. “I was talking to a lady a few days ago and she said she had cancer,” Sims said. “It seems like you can go up one street and there’s eight to 10 people with cancer. It can’t be hereditary.”

But actions to mitigate the problem in Memphis remain scant to an outrageous level, compared to the attention and action Willowbrook ultimately received. There is no excuse to ignore South Memphis residents when some plants throughout the nation (including a sister facility of Sterilization Services in Georgia) have bowed to harsh publicity, state government scrutiny, and lawsuits in more empowered and resourced communities to install filters and other controls to limit emissions.. The EPA’s website says the Sterilization Services of Tennessee plant has had “no recent installation of controls,” and has “no current plans for new controls at this time.”

Unconscionable inaction

A resolution from the Memphis City Council calling on the plant to reduce ethylene oxide emissions to thus far no effect. The county thus far has been passive.  On February 7, the Southern Environmental Law Center, writing on behalf of South Memphis residents, petitioned the Shelby County Health Department to exercise emergency powers to shut down the Sterilization Services facility or halt ethylene oxide pollution. The petition cited the UCS analysis and noted that the average life span of a person living in the census tract where the facility is located is 65.3 years, 11 years below the state average. Four adjoining census tracts have average life spans between 66.5 years and 69.4 years.

“The South Memphis community should not be forced to endure several more years of
unnecessary exposure to a cancer-causing chemical while EPA completes its rulemaking,” the petition said.

But, just two days later, the county rejected a shutdown, saying the plant meets “current” federal, state, and local rules for ethylene oxide emissions. While admitting that South Memphis residents “face inequitable health, social, and environmental conditions,” the county said all it would do is ask for more federal and state health risk data.   

The response came so fast and was so unresponsive to community pleas that Angela Johnson, outreach director for Memphis Community Against Pollution, asked out loud in a telephone interview, “Did they even read our petition?”

EPA action needed

Such acute local inaction makes federal action urgent. But, so far, South Memphis residents are not sure what to make of the EPA’s sincerity. For one, the current movement of coal ash through the community is essentially federally approved, given that the Tennessee Valley Authority utility was created by Congress.

For another, the EPA under the Trump administration delayed telling even Willowbrook residents about the potential danger posed by its Sterigenics plant. Thirdly, the EPA under the Biden administration has sent a muddled message to South Memphis about ethylene oxide. One slide of a community presentation by the EPA last fall said, “Reducing EtO coming out of the facility is the best way to reduce risk.” But an EPA regional air quality director enraged some people at the presentation by adding that residents should reduce their risk by “spending less time near the facility.”

Sims was one of those who took the EPA comment as an implied recommendation that she and her neighbors should move, while the agency shirked its responsibility to address the pollution. “Come on now,” she said. “Where are these people going to move when the housing market is so ridiculously high? You got elderly people here and some people at jobs making barely more than $1,000 a month (Tennessee has no minimum wage law, putting many wage earners below the $7.25 an hour federal minimum). It’s the plant that needs to move. Take that plant and move it somewhere next to nobody.”

Johnson said it is critical for the EPA to act because the threat of ethylene oxide is so much more invisible than the black clouds belching from a coal plant or a crude oil or natural gas pipeline slashing a scar through communities. “This fight against ethylene oxide will look a little different,” Johnson said. “We can win if everybody comes together. But it will be harder.”

“With a pipeline, you could pull people together across the city when you can talk about a leak ruining the water source of Memphis and Shelby County. With EtO, we must connect more dots. How far does it travel? What does it cost the city for so many people to be sick? Even Willowbrook, with their resources, they still had a fight on their hands before the company backed away. I can’t fathom what we will have to go through.”

Sims says that for her part, she will try to see the fight through, meeting by meeting, hearing by hearing and asking people on the street if they know that they are living under a cloud of carcinogenic gas. Sims says she doesn’t want to be living in a place that’s so dangerous to her health and that of her family and neighbors, but she also doesn’t want to move.

Her conundrum could end if the EPA would finally follow its own 2016 risk assessment and require ethylene oxide sterilizers  to either cap their emissions (and ideally, transition to safer methods of sterilization),  or close their doors.   

About the author

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Derrick Z. Jackson is a UCS Fellow in climate and energy and the Center for Science and Democracy. Formerly of the Boston Globe and Newsday, Jackson is a Pulitzer Prize and National Headliners finalist, a 2021 Scripps Howard opinion winner, and a respective 11-time, 4-time and 2-time winner from the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and the Education Writers Association.