Ethylene oxide is used to sterilize medical equipment and to fumigate food products. It is also used as the initial component for making other chemicals, especially ethylene glycol (antifreeze), but also for making textiles, detergents, polyurethane foam, solvents, medicine, adhesives, plastics, and resins. Ethylene oxide was first described in 1859. However, it was not massively produced until World War I when fuel demand increased and ethylene oxide derived from petroleum was used to make antifreeze, mustard gas, and explosives.
Ethylene oxide is a chemical that is massively produced by fossil fuel industries. In 1931, the process of making ethylene oxide from ethylene was developed from treating ethylene with extreme heat and pressure. Since 1940, almost all industrial ethylene oxide is produced in this energy intensive process that is a heavy emitter of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Ethylene is made from petroleum (crude oil and refined products). The oversupply of ethylene may have influenced the use of ethylene oxide as a sterilizer when other safer sterilization methods such as heat, UV from the sun, ethanol, and others have been in use since before industrialization. According to fossil fuel giant Shell, its chemical companies “are among the largest global producers of high purity ethylene oxide.”
According to OSHA, ethylene oxide exposure can result in respiratory irritation and lung injury, headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, shortness of breath, and cyanosis (bluish color in the skin, lips, and nail beds caused by a shortage of oxygen in the blood). Chronic exposure to ethylene oxide can result in cancer, reproductive problems, mutagenic changes (changes to DNA that can result in diseases, especially cancer), neurotoxicity (alteration of the normal activity of the nervous system), and hypersensitivity (exaggerated or inappropriate allergic reactions).
Unfortunately, historically resilient communities, especially Black, Latine, and Native American communities, are disproportionately exposed to ethylene oxide, like how historically resilient communities are exposed to other toxic chemicals.
Guadalupe and South Phoenix communities especially impacted
In Arizona, the people of the Pascua Yaqui tribe located in Guadalupe are within 3 miles from the ethylene oxide-emitting facility Stryker and within 5 miles from another, American Contract Systems. Similarly, the people of South Phoenix, within the 85042 zip code, next to the town of Guadalupe, are within 3-5 miles from Stryker.
Studies have shown that children under 14 years old in these zip codes have more emergency room visits and asthma hospitalizations compared to more affluent zip codes that are not near the ethylene oxide-emitting facilities. According to the CDC, White, Black and Latine (Hispanic) people have high rates of cancer, especially lung cancer and cancers of reproductive organs, in Congressional Districts 7 and 4, where these ethylene oxide facilities are located. Due to systematic exclusion of data on American and Alaska Native people–which is one component of Indigenous erasure–there is no public information about cancer rates among the tribal communities near these facilities. This is shocking considering how Arizona has the third-highest Native American population in the USA, and the Congressional District with the most Native Americans in the United States. If there is no data collected or reported to identify the problem, then no solution can be implemented.
What you can do to get accountability for the impact of ethylene oxide in your community?
Last week, EPA proposed to update ethylene oxide emissions standards for commercial sterilizers. Fill out this interest form to get involved in improving EPA regulations for ethylene oxide and to help organize your community to stay safe from the impact of ethylene oxide exposure.
Send an email to Dr. Sophia Marjanovic at [email protected] if you want to get involved in seeking accountability for ethylene oxide exposure in Arizona. I will connect you with the local environmental justice community organizers and scientists who are working on accountability and healing for the people of South Phoenix and the Pascua Yaqui people of Guadalupe.