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KGNS On Your Side: Officials address air quality concerns

Published: Nov. 22, 2021 at 12:53 PM CST
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LAREDO, TX. (KGNS) - Recently KGNS conducted a report about the release of a toxic chemical into the Laredo air by a sterilization plant.

The chemical is called ethylene oxide and the company is Midwest Sterilization.

The Environmental Protection Agency classifies ethylene oxide as a carcinogen meaning it can cause cancer.

While Midwest sterilization is in compliance with all regulations, researchers question whether those regulations are protecting the public.

Experts say more data is needed to determine if the pollutant is actually harming the community.

We spoke to officials on the steps they are taking to address the concern.

Now that we are aware that ethylene oxide is a carcinogen that can cause certain types of cancers in adults, can affect a child’s DNA and that Midwest Sterilization has a permit to release up to 12,000 pounds a year.

KGNS wanted to know what the solution could be for this potential health risk.

In speaking with experts including Midwest Sterilization toxicologist Doctor Lucy Fraiser, the general consensus was that air monitoring is needed.

Dr. Fraiser says, “What you really need to do to characterize the long-term concentration is you need to collect those 24-hour concentrations over a period of an entire year. You wouldn’t need to necessarily collect them every day but you would want to have some sort of objective sampling period, maybe collect twice a week for an entire year.”

When we asked the company if they had any air monitoring system outside of their Laredo plan, a public relations person for the company said “No we do not. Fence line monitoring is not accurate and is not required by the agencies that regulate us.”

We found that response interesting because a video previously on the company’s website indicated something else.

The video shows a spokesperson saying, “We always try to go a step further and regularly monitor the air quality in our facilities and around our properties to ensure EO released into the air has zero affects.”

In doing a reverse image search on Google of the air monitoring equipment pictured in the video it appears to be the same picture used on a website in the Ukraine, Russia, and possibly even Belarus.

After we asked a representative about the image, it appears to have been removed from the website.

Now, if air monitoring is needed and the company isn’t providing it, who will?

During Monday night’s City Council meeting, members agreed to apply with the EPA for grant money to pay for air monitoring systems.

Councilmember Vanessa Perez says, “We want to get as much financial assistance as we can get from the state and other resources so it’s not all... the burden doesn’t just come from our citizens.”

The council also agreed to include the Laredo Health Authority in investigating these concerns.

Doctor Victor Trevino says he’s interested in taking a scientific approach.

Dr. Trevino says, “One of the recommendations to the city council was to get blood samples for people who live around the area who may be impacted and this way we can have biomarkers. This is going to be a voluntary request, so this way we can start getting some scientific information and solid information rather than just assuming that things are happening.”

UISD will also be involved in the next steps, being that their school Muller Elementary was identified by the political economy research institute at the university of Massachusetts Amherst as having one of the worst air toxic concentrations of any school in the country 205.3 times the national average.

UISD Superintendent David Gonzalez says, “One of the recommendations to the city council was to get blood samples for people who live around the area who may be impacted and this way we can have biomarkers. This is going to be a voluntary request, so this way we can start getting some scientific information and solid information rather than just assuming that things are happening.”

While the answers are still unclear as to how this chemical is impacting public health. officials say they are working on finding a solution.

The “Clean Air Laredo” Coalition established by District Seven Councilmember Vanessa Perez and local environmentalist received support from the Laredo City Council.

They will be hosting a town hall meeting for the public on December 8 at 6 p.m. over at the Fasken Recreation Center.

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