Shared from the 2/7/2022 Houston Chronicle eEdition

EPA nixes state take on toxic chemical

Feds to initiate tighter oversight of ethylene oxide

Mark Mulligan / Staff photographer

The EPA will formally reject Texas’ analysis that cancer-causing ethylene oxide isn’t a problem.

Like a big sibling brushing aside a little one’s input, federal environmental regulators are tossing Texas’ argument that a common cancer-causing chemical isn’t all that harmful. National staff appear to be moving forward in the months ahead with plans to regulate it more tightly.

The fight centers on a chemical that, like many produced in the Houston region, most enjoy the benefits and suffer the risks of but few have any idea exists. It’s a colorless gas called ethylene oxide, best known for its effectiveness in sterilizing medical equipment. It’s also used to purify spices and make a range of household products.

And it’s one of 188 air pollutants the Environmental Protection Agency regulates that are known or suspected to cause significant health or environmental problems. It’s a significant contributor to cancer risk in the Houston region because of industrial facilities, according to a November environmental data analysis by Pro-Publica, a nonprofit news site.

This sibling spat goes back years. In the past decade, the EPA took a harder look at ethylene oxide. Researchers read studies that showed it to be more dangerous than scientists previously thought. In 2016, the agency published a new analysis of how much more likely it really was to cause cancer.

“It wasn’t just an ordinary carcinogen,” explained Neil Carman, clean air director for the Texas chapter of the Sierra Club. “It was a super carcinogen. That’s what all the evidence was showing.”

Those at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality heard this and decided in 2017 to take a look. TCEQ praised itself for this, saying in a statement that, though it doesn’t have to, the agency “goes above and beyond federal requirements” to develop its own protection levels for various chemicals.

The often attacked state agency ultimately decided that ethylene oxide was in fact less toxic than researchers previously believed. It challenged the way EPA had analyzed the available research on the toxin, arguing the EPA’s assessment was far-too-generously predicting danger and placing an unwarranted strain on the medical equipment industry.

The little sibling drew a line in the sand, essentially saying that Texas viewed the math differently. And Texas understood the science better. The state’s new, less-stringent level for what was considered safe became official in 2020.

Not everyone liked TCEQ’s about-face, least of all environmental advocates.

“That’s why they get criticized, right?” said Elena Craft, a toxicologist and senior director of climate and health for the Environmental Defense Fund, explaining that Texas was not offering the same protection as the rest of the country.

The Sierra Club and others sued in 2019 to be able to see the documents TCEQ used to come to a decision to lessen the protections. The advocates suspected the agency was “doing the industry’s bidding,” said Ilan Levin, associate director of the Environmental Integrity Project and an attorney on the case.

Industry disagrees

An ethylene oxide panel from the American Chemistry Council, a group that represents industrial companies, said in a statement shared with the Houston Chronicle on Tuesday that it found the EPA’s analysis to be “significantly flawed.”

But big-sibling EPA, under pressure from other scientists and community groups to review how it regulates the chemical, moved on ahead with upping the threat level. In a phone call with reporters last week, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the agency would formally reject the Texas analysis and proceed to make regulations with its own.

Regan said his decision on ethylene oxide followed his November visit to Houston and several other communities, where he focused on issues facing people of color and talked with residents about their concerns.

“We are leading with the best available science to reduce emissions of the chemical and better protect the communities’ health,” Regan said. “And we’re going to look at a range of approaches besides regulation for achieving emissions reductions while regulations are in development.”

Once it’s been made public, the EPA will accept public input for 45 days on Regan’s decision to use the EPA’s own evaluation of the chemical’s risk. TCEQ officials say they plan to send feedback. In its statement, the little sibling said the big one failed to address its technical concerns.

Federal regulators intend next to reconsider how facilities keep ethylene oxide from escaping into the air, and how it’s used by workers for sterilizing items. They pointed out that addressing the risk or telling people about it more effectively could happen faster at the local level, perhaps if also pushed by local officials, academics and community members.

How much is too much?

Apart from these regulatory processes, the agency is also trying to figure out how better to monitor for the chemical, which is a vital issue for places such as Harris County. It’s hard for investigators to measure, said La-trice Babin, executive director of Harris County Pollution Control. And once staff are able to detect it more accurately, they will need guidance on how much is too much.

To have none of the toxin in the air would be ideal but isn’t practical, Babin noted. Facilities are allowed to use it to make relied-upon items. The question is at what level it becomes a safety concern.

“We don’t really so much think about what it takes to create those conveniences that you become accustomed to,” Babin said. “That’s why environmental sampling and analysis is so important because we live with this. … We want to make sure that there’s not harm being imposed for those conveniences.”

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