With statistics showing that all residents of Laredo have a 75% higher risk of cancer than the rest of the nation from ethylene oxide (EtO) emissions, local leaders are trying to see what they can do to address the problem and to reduce it.
After the release of a report by ProPublica — a newsroom that aims to produce investigative journalism in the public interest — that identified specific risks to Laredo residents, District VII Councilor Vanessa Perez placed the item on the council’s agenda at its meeting of 15 November.
Tricia Cortez, executive director of the Rio Grande International Study Center, outlined ProPublica’s report and the specific concerns associated with it.
“This is a very important public health threat to our community,” Cortez said.
What is the threat?
According to ProPublica’s report, Laredoans are exposed to a significantly high volume of EtO emissions each year. In the district of Perez, EtO emissions are of such concern that residents of the area have a 95-100% higher risk of developing cancer than the rest of the country.
The reason for this is said to be the district’s relationship to the Midwestern sterilization site, which releases ethylene oxide during daily use. According to the report, Midwestern sterilization ranks second nationwide of all more than 100 facilities that emit this toxic air. It ranks third in the US for the highest cancer risk from air pollution among more than 15,000 industrial facilities that report air poisoning data to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Midwest Sterilization did not have a representative at the Nov. 15 meeting, but following a story published by KGNS TV on Nov. 12, the organization released a statement regarding EtO emissions.
“The health and safety of our employees and local residents is our top priority,” the statement said. “We remain strongly committed to improving patient health and protecting lives. This means ensuring that public health and safety precautions apply not only to our employees, but also to the engineers and scientists who help design and manufacture medical devices, and to neighbors and families in the communities where we live and work.”
They went on to say that they follow the rules set by the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and that they are currently emitting less than the maximum allowable £12,000 per year.
Midwest Sterilization has two facilities in the country. One in Laredo and another in Jackson, Missouri. In 2019, the Jackson site was examined by the EPA for EtO emissions. It installed further emissions controls at the time, and the EPA revised its dispersion and risk model as a result.
What is Ethylene Oxide?
Ethylene oxide is a carcinogen and one of more than 180 toxic air pollutants regulated by the EPA, known to cause cancer and other serious health effects. Long-term exposure — sometimes decades, sometimes shorter — can cause lymphoma in men, breast cancer in women, and leukemia in children.
EtO emissions are believed to affect the entire city of Laredo, and according to the ProPublica report, this has resulted in 94 out of 95 schools in Laredo being in the top 6% of all schools in the US at risk of cancer . Ten Laredo schools are in the top 1%, including Muller Elementary, which is located just 2.5 miles from Midwest Sterilization.
The EPA reports that ethylene oxide is 30 times more toxic to adults and 60 times more toxic to children than previously estimated. As a result, the EPA revised its EtO emissions recommendations in 2019.
However, the recommendations are not yet mandatory nationally or nationally.
As previously mentioned, in 2019 the EPA revised its recommendations for EtO emissions.
“The proposed…amendments represent the first regulatory action EPA is taking to address ethylene oxide as part of our two-pronged approach to reducing emissions,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler at the time. “This proposal would reduce other hazardous air pollutants from our country’s air while providing better compliance measures for industry.”
With the recommendations, the EPA estimated that these specific air pollutants would be reduced to 116 tons per year, which would include a 93% reduction in EtO emissions from indoor facilities such as Midwest Sterilization.
However, the TCEQ has yet to adopt these recommendations, just as many government agencies have not, which creates a problem when the city of Laredo learns of reports like ProPublica’s and takes its concerns to this particular entity.
“When we saw this report being submitted, we had some of the same questions,” said city manager Robert Eads. “It is clear that protecting our citizens is our number 1 priority for all of us.
“We’re very good friends, for many different reasons, with TCEQ, and we went up to them to say, ‘TCEQ, where are you in this? Obviously you’re there to protect us all from bad water or bad air, whatever it may be,” and they told us, at least for their part, that (Midwest) meets every standard that has been set.
“Is that acceptable for EPA or even for us, our community? Maybe not.”
Midwestern sterilization came to Laredo in 2005. According to multiple councilors at this Nov. 15 meeting, it came to the city after an economic development grant intended to “fund ideas and programs to boost the economy.”
In addition, the company has played a particularly important role during the COVID-19 pandemic. Midwest sterilizes medical equipment for use with its largest customer, Medline, which manufactures and distributes medical supplies nationwide.
Midwest has also donated money to nonprofits and provides more than 100 jobs to citizens in the area.
Laredo and Midwest Sterilization are monetarily linked. Perez made the best possible effort in making her motion during the meeting to ensure that further investigations into this situation were conducted without bias. That decision came with a strong recommendation from Cortez.
“What we need is that we need an independent, qualified consultant to do the air monitoring,” she said. “The EPA is about to release a lot, a lot of grant money to enable communities like ours to get the air monitors they need to do this, and we agree that that’s fundamental and that it’s also in the Midwest’s interest to provide support. such a move.”
During the meeting, Perez passed a unanimously passed motion to support Laredo’s Clean Air Coalition and further educate the community about the concerns surrounding the issue.
She added that the city would send a resolution to the EPA and TCEQ requesting air quality monitors to measure the problem throughout the city.
District IV councilor Alberto Torres added to the motion for Eads to begin exploring grants for the ability to fund these monitors or find money in the budget to get them on their own money. In addition, he added that the city would look at the economic incentives Midwestern sterilization might have and see if they need to be adjusted.
Marte A. Martinez, the councilor for District VI, added that he wants to ensure that both city school districts and county leaders are involved in any action Laredo plans to take on this matter in the future. .
Action and an upcoming town hall
Perez’s motion sent the city into action. Cortez spoke decisively during the meeting: Action must be taken.
“Federal agencies have said that any exposure to carcinogens is not a safe exposure,” Cortez said.
“It’s not about proving whether it causes cancer or not, just like we all know that smoking cigarettes causes cancer. We don’t have to prove that. It’s the same with ethylene oxide. The air monitoring is very important because it will help us know how many people in Laredo have been exposed to it, and the best way to find out is through independent air monitoring.”
Perez will host a town hall on December 8 at the Fasken Community Center at 15201 Cerralavo Dr. to discuss the situation.
The town hall is free to the public and starts at 6.30 pm