A Los Angeles County supervisor is calling for the temporary shuttering of a medical device sterilizing plant and the investigation of other similar facilities elsewhere in Southern California after the region’s air quality agency detected unsafe levels of a cancer-causing gas in Vernon.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District began investigating Sterigenics in Vernon in March in response to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s changing views on the toxicity of ethylene oxide, a gas used by Sterigenics and others to sterilize medical equipment, according to an AQMD spokesperson.
Unannounced inspections in April found ethylene oxide (EtO) concentrations were at such a high level near the company’s 50th Street location that nearby workers could have a risk of cancer that is four times higher than the average in the region.
Ethylene oxide is an odorless and colorless gas. Short-term exposure can cause headaches, nausea and difficulty breathing, while long-term exposure can lead to lymphoid and breast cancers, according to the AQMD.
Since then, L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn has urged the agency to force Sterigenics to cease all ethylene oxide-emitting operations until the company is back in compliance, according to a May 17 letter to the AQMD.
Maywood residents live within 500 feet of the facility and have long suffered from the impacts of lead contamination from the Exide battery recycling plant and metal emissions from a magnesium chemical fire in 2016. Exide, which spread contaminants up to 1.7 miles away over the course of decades, abandoned the property through bankruptcy in 2020.
“SCAQMD should consider the health burden of these cumulative impacts in its assessment and enforcement strategies,” Hahn wrote in her letter.
Hahn’s letter regarding Sterigenics came on the same day that the Board of Supervisors passed a motion requesting additional funding for the Exide cleanup. The cost is expected to exceed half a billion dollars.
A spokesperson for Hahn said the supervisor believes the AQMD should investigate not only Sterigenics, which operates facilities in Vernon and Ontario, but other emitters of ethylene oxide throughout Southern California.
Last year, the EPA, following years of debate at the national level, acknowledged ethylene oxide poses a greater risk than previously believed and imposed new rules specifically on medical sterilization companies using the gas. Of the 29 facilities identified by the EPA, five are in California — all in the south — including Parter Medical Products in Carson and Steris Inc. in Temecula. The fifth, Steris Isomedix Services Inc., is in San Diego.
Under the new requirements, the facilities had to begin tracking their emissions in January 2022 and will have to submit the data in 2023.
Still under investigation
Nearly 948,000 people, including 81,710 children younger than 5, live within a 5-mile radius of the Vernon facility, according to the U.S. EPA.
In a May 20 response to Hahn’s letter, Wayne Nastri, the agency’s executive officer, said initial monitoring at the nearest residences to the Vernon facility found ethylene oxide was “at or near background levels” and did not appear to be pose a risk. The concentrations of the chemical significantly dropped off within 150 feet of the building.
The primary concern, at this time, is for workers, according to agency.
AQMD issued a notice of violation to Sterigenics on May 5 for failure to maintain and operate its air pollution control system.
The AQMD is working with Sterigenics on “immediate and near-term actions” to reduce and mitigate emissions. If necessary, the agency could issue an “order for abatement” that would require the company to comply with air quality requirements or “cease operating,” Nastri wrote in the response.
“This is an ongoing investigation and the South Coast AQMD continues to take air samples and to evaluate all equipment to ensure that the facilities are following permit conditions and using proper emissions control equipment,” he wrote.
The AQMD has not received any complaints about air quality issues related to the Sterigenics facilities in the past five years, he said.
In a statement, Hahn expressed disappointment in the response.
“They say they are working with this company to lower the emissions of ethylene oxide, but I think they need to cease operations until they can prove they can operate safely and not put workers and local residents at risk,” she said.
A Sterigenics spokesperson said the company’s Vernon facilities provide sterilizations for “over 45 million essential medical devices and supplies each year — including surgical kits, catheters, cardiac implants, stents, IV sets and more — that are supplied to nearly 100 healthcare manufacturers, including dozens in the Los Angeles area, as well as local hospitals.”
Sterigenics is cooperating with the AQMD to address the concerns and is implementing “additional, voluntary enhancements at the facilities to further reduce emissions,” according to the statement.
Ontario facility flagged
In November, ProPublica released an analysis of more than 1,000 toxic “hot spots” across the country. The Sterigenics facilities in Vernon and Ontario made the list.
Meanwhile, in Vernon, the cancer risk was roughly 50% less than the EPA’s threshold, suggesting it was the less risky of the two facilities at the time, according to ProPublica’s data.
Nearly 240,000 people, including 16,751 children, live within a 5-mile radius of the facility, according to the EPA.
In 2004, an ethylene oxide explosion at the facility injured four employees and damaged equipment. The cause was attributed to a lack of engineering controls and hazard understanding, according to federal investigators.
The AQMD has yet to conduct any monitoring at the Ontario location, though a spokesperson indicated it may investigate other medical sterilization facilities in the future.
San Bernardino County Supervisor Curt Hagman, whose district includes the Ontario facility, declined to comment. Supervisor Janice Rutherford, who sits on the 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 the current emission control technology at the Ontario facility.”
“Sterigenics has made enhancements to the facility to utilize best available control technology, enabling it to continue to perform significantly better than the total ethylene oxide removal requirements established by the EPA and state of California,” the company said in a statement.
AQMD spokesperson Kim White said the agency initiated the inspections in Vernon as a result of the “reconsideration of the potential toxicity” of ethylene oxide at the federal level.
“South Coast AQMD is currently evaluating other facilities that use EtO within our jurisdictions, including conducting onsite inspections,” she wrote in an email. “The agency will conduct additional testing or investigations as appropriate.”
Source: Orange County Register