EPA proposes limits on cancer-causing gas used to sterilize medical equipment

By Shannon Kelleher and Grace van Deelen

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday proposed new standards to protect workers and communities from exposure to ethylene oxide, a toxic gas used to sterilize medical equipment and some spices. The agency estimates the new health protections could cut commercial facilities’ emissions of the colorless cancer-causing gas by 80% per year.

EPA will require the 86 commercial sterilizer facilities across the US to install pollution controls within 18 months of the agency issuing a final rule.

“EPA estimates that these reductions would lead to reduced ethylene oxide related risks at all of the communities located near the sterilizers to levels below the Clean Air Act benchmark for elevated cancer risk,” said Tomas Carbonell, the deputy assistant administrator for stationary sources at the EPA Office of Air and Radiation.

Ethylene oxide has been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and breast cancer, among other cancers. A lifetime of exposure to the toxic chemical at concentrations found near sterilizers can boost a person’s risk for developing cancer to above the federal threshold of 100-in-a-million, according to a 2022 EPA analysis, although the gas has been linked to cancer for decades. The agency has also identified 23 ethylene oxide sterilizer facilities that pose high cancer risks to communities.

Two types of facilities that emit ethylene oxide disproportionately pollute communities of color, low-income communities, and non-English speaking communities, according to a report published in February by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Hundreds of legal claims have been filed across the US by people who have suffered health effects from exposure to ethylene oxide pollution. Last year, an Illinois resident diagnosed with breast cancer after living near a sterilizer facility for decades was awarded $363 million, although a second resident with cancer did not win her lawsuit against the company.