A Los Angeles County supervisor is calling for an investigation into the temporary shuttering of a medical device sterilizing plant and other similar facilities elsewhere in Southern California, after the area’s air quality agency detected unsafe levels of the cancer-causing gas in Vernon. have put.
According to an AQMD spokesperson, the South Coast Air Quality Management District began investigating Sterigenics in Vernon in March in response to the US Environmental Protection Agency’s changing views on the toxicity of ethylene oxide, a gas used by Sterigenics and others to sterilize medical equipment. is used for.
Unannounced inspections in April found that ethylene oxide (ETO) concentrations near the company’s 50th Street location were at such high levels that nearby employees could be at risk of cancer, which is four times the average in the area.
Ethylene oxide is an odorless and colorless gas. According to AQMD, short-term exposure can cause headache, nausea and difficulty breathing, while long-term exposure can lead to lymphoid and breast cancer.
Since then, LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn has urged the agency to force Sterigenics to halt all ethylene oxide-emitting operations until the company is back in compliance, according to a May 17 letter to AQMD.
Maywood residents live within 500 feet of the facility and have long suffered from the effects of lead contamination from an Exide battery recycling plant and metal emissions from a magnesium chemical fire in 2016. exide, which spreads contaminants up to 1.7 miles away. Decades, abandoned the property through bankruptcy in 2020.
“The SCAQMD should consider the health burden of these cumulative effects in their assessment and enforcement strategies,” Hahn wrote in their letter.
Hahn’s letter regarding Sterigenics came on the same day that the board of supervisors passed a resolution requesting additional funding for the Exide cleanup. The cost is expected to exceed half a billion dollars.
A spokesman for Hahn said the observer believes AQMD should investigate not only Sterigenics, which operates facilities in Vernon and Ontario, but other emitters of ethylene oxide throughout Southern California.
Last year, after years of debate nationally, the EPA acknowledged that ethylene oxide poses a greater risk than previously thought and imposed new rules specifically on medical sterilization companies that use the gas. Of the 29 facilities identified by the EPA, five are in California — all in the South — with Parter Medical Products in Carson and Steris Inc. in Temecula. The fifth, Steris Isomedix Services Inc., is in San Diego.
Under the new requirements, facilities must begin tracking their emissions in January 2022 and submit data in 2023.
According to the US EPA, approximately 948,000 people live within a 5-mile radius of the Vernon facility, including 81,710 children under the age of 5.
In a May 20 response to Hahn’s letter, the agency’s executive officer, Wayne Nastry, said that preliminary surveillance at residences closest to the Vernon facility found that ethylene oxide was “at or near background level” and did not pose a risk. Was. The concentration of the chemical dropped significantly within 150 feet of the building.
According to the agency, the primary concern at this time is for workers.
AQMD issued a notice of violation to Sterigenics on May 5 for its failure to maintain and operate its air pollution control system.
AQMD is working with Sterigenics on “immediate and near-term action” to try and reduce emissions. If necessary, the agency could issue an “order for elimination” that would require the company to comply with air quality requirements or “stop operating,” Nastri wrote in the response.
“This is an ongoing investigation and South Coast AQMD continues to take air samples and evaluate all equipment to ensure that facilities are complying with permit conditions and using appropriate emissions control equipment. ,” they wrote.
He added that the AQMD has not received any complaints regarding air quality issues related to the Steregenics facilities in the last five years.
In a statement, Hahn expressed disappointment in the response.
“They say they’re working with this company to reduce emissions of ethylene oxide, but I don’t think they’re going to work until they can prove that they can work safely and that workers and local They need to stop operations until they can’t put residents at risk,” she said.
A Sterigenics spokesperson said that the company’s Vernon facilities “provide sterilization for more than 45 million essential medical devices and supplies every year — including surgical kits, catheters, cardiac implants, stents, IV sets and more — that span dozens of are supplied to approximately 100 healthcare manufacturers in the Los Angeles area, as well as to local hospitals.”
According to the statement, Sterigenics is collaborating with AQMD to address concerns and is implementing “additional, voluntary enhancements to facilities to further reduce emissions.”
Ontario feature marked
In November, ProPublica released an analysis of more than 1,000 toxic “hot spots” across the country. Steregenics facilities in Vernon and Ontario made the list.
The analysis, which used five years of data, determined that the cancer risk near the Ontario facility was 3.3 times higher than the EPA’s acceptable risk level, according to Capital & Maine.
Meanwhile, according to data from ProPublica, at Vernon, the cancer risk was about 50% lower than the EPA’s limit, suggesting it was the less risky of the two facilities at the time.
According to the EPA, approximately 240,000 people, including 16,751 children, live within 5 miles of the facility.
In 2004, an ethylene oxide explosion at the facility injured four workers and damaged equipment. According to federal investigators, the cause was attributed to a lack of engineering controls and understanding of the threat.
AQMD has yet to conduct any surveillance at the Ontario location, although a spokesperson indicated that it may investigate other medical sterilization facilities in the future.
San Bernardino County Supervisor Kurt Hagman, whose district includes the Ontario facility, declined to comment. Supervisor Janice Rutherford, who sits on AQMD’s board, was out of town and could not be reached for comment.
A spokesperson for Sterigenics said the data used by ProPublica used averages from 2014 to 2018 and “does not accurately reflect current emissions control technology at the Ontario facility.”
“Sterigenics has enhanced the facility to utilize the best available control technology, allowing it to continue to perform significantly better than the total ethylene oxide removal requirements established by the EPA and the State of California,” the company said in a statement. “
AQMD spokeswoman Kim White said the agency began the inspection at Vernon as a result of “rethinking about the potential toxicity” of ethylene oxide at the federal level.
“South Coast AQMD is currently evaluating other facilities that use EtO in our jurisdiction, including conducting onsite inspections,” she wrote in an email. “The agency will conduct additional tests or investigations as appropriate.”