Are potential toxins being released in our air?

Published: Nov. 12, 2021 at 5:54 AM CST
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LAREDO, TX. (KGNS) - You can’t see it and you probably can’t smell it, but every year a chemical is released into the air over Laredo by a local company.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)says the chemical is a carcinogen, meaning exposure to it can cause cancer.

The chemical is ethylene oxide, and the company releasing it is Midwest Sterilization.

The company has a permit from the state of Texas to release more than 12,000 pounds of the chemical into the air every year.

The company appears to be following all rules and regulations, but some question if it’s enough to protect people living near the plant, especially children.

Muller Elementary is located just 1.6 miles away from the Midwest Sterilization Corporation.

Midwest Sterilization does exactly what the name implies, they sterilize surgical equipment using ethylene oxide also called E.O. gas.

Exposure to E.O. gas can cause a range of health problems including cancer in adults, but a government report says the risk of developing cancer is greater for children because E.O. gas can damage a child’s DNA.

Earlier this year, the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst published a report.

The report says when compared with other schools in the country, Mueller Elementary has one of the worst air toxic concentrations in the country, 205.03 times the national average.

Michael Ash, a professor from UM Amherst says “I would say we do have a basis for concern and reason for further inquiry when we realize that a fairly large quantity of this chemical is being released or is being reported released by the Midwest Sterilization corporation facility and that Muller Elementary School as well as communities are living not so far away from release that there is a potential risk here and it really requires additional follow up.”

After the university’s report, the United Independent School District sent a letter to all parents and staff in May.

The letter sought to reassure parents that the air was safe.

It pointed out that the Texas Commission on Environment Quality (TCEQ) inspected Midwest Sterilization eight times in the last five years, that they were a proper distance from the school, and the company is following all the regulations.

But is that enough? Experts believe they’re not.

Former TCEQ employee Dr. Neil Carman says in his experience these commercial sterilizers are very small and they’re very poorly regulated.

Dr. Carman has experience with the TCEQ because he worked at the agency as a regional clean air investigator for 12 years.

He adds that “the agency in my opinion does not enforce the law that to protect public health what they do is they bend over backwards to help industry and big business make sure that they’re profitable.”

The E.P.A. has listed 3 census tracts in Laredo as having an elevated risk of cancer from exposure to Ethylene Oxide.

Mueller elementary is in one of those tracts, and according to the 2010 census, more than 17,900 people also live in these tracts.

And the Office of the Inspector General for the E.P.A. says the agency has not done enough to warn people living near facilities that pump out ethylene oxide into the air.

In march of last year, the O.I.G said “prompt action” is needed on an “urgent matter” of a “significant health risk(s).”

But as of last January, neither the E.P.A. or the T.C.E.Q. had plans to inform people living near Midwest Sterilization.

According to the EPA’s website they are taking steps to reduce ethylene oxide emissions, reviewing regulations for facilities, and getting more information on the effects of Ethylene Oxide.

According to Midwest Sterilization they are following all the rules set by the USA EPA and TCEQ.

They say while they are allowed to discharge more than 12,000 pounds every year, they are below that level.

They do say that other sources of ethylene oxide are tractor trailers, school buses, lawn mowers, and charcoal grills.

However, those are called short-term emitters.

In statement to KGNS they add:

“the health and safety of our employees and community residents is our highest priority. We remain strongly committed to improving patient health and safeguarding lives. This includes ensuring that the public health and safety precautions extend not only to our employees, but 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.”

If you’d like to take a look at the political economy research institutes’ “air toxics at schools” research click here.

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