What Is Ethylene Oxide?

By August 16, 2019Environmental Laws

Ethylene oxide has been in the news lately. But what exactly is it? And should members of the public be worried? The federal government has not done a good job of releasing helpful information to the public, so we feel the need to step into the gap.

On July 19, 2019, WebMD published an article on ethylene oxide and cancer, which contained eye-opening information about this chemical and the increased risk of cancer in our communities. It turns out that our communities have been exposed to very high levels of ethylene oxide for decades and many of our residents are becoming sick.

What is Ethylene Oxide Used For?

Ethylene oxide is an invisible gas that leaves behind no odor. This chemical has many uses, such as being a component of antifreeze. But the chemical is used most frequently to sterilize medical equipment because it can penetrate plastic, paper, and cardboard and can kill bacteria and fungi.

BD Bard, a large company in Covington that sterilizes medical equipment, uses ethylene oxide. It is also used by other companies in the state.

Does Covington Have High Emissions of Ethylene Oxide?

Yes. BD Bard has released the chemical continuously into the air for decades. In 1987, it released 76,000 pounds of ethylene oxide. This load dropped to 35,700 pounds in 1991 and has declined since.

The federal government has identified Covington as one of the census tracts in the U.S. with high cancer risks because of airborne toxins like ethylene oxide. Covington was only one of three tracts in the state with this designation. The other two were in the Smyrna area, where a Sterigenics medical sterilization plant operates.

Why Is this Chemical Dangerous?

According to scientists, ethylene oxide affects the DNA in our cells, which can cause out-of-control growth. This leads to cancer in animals and humans. Because the gas is odorless, you might have no idea you are breathing it in.

Alarmingly, industry has been aware for decades that ethylene oxide is dangerous. In fact, one company reported it as a problem chemical all the way back in 1981, well before the gas was on the government’s radar as potentially dangerous.

Does Ethylene Oxide Cause Cancer?

Yes, it does. Workers who have been exposed to the gas are at higher risk of developing certain cancers, such as lymphomas, leukemia, or breast cancer. A study in 2004 confirmed that exposure increased the risk of developing these diseases. In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency identified the chemical as one that “definitely” causes cancer.

When mice have been exposed to ethylene oxide, they developed brain, lung, and uterine cancers. They also developed other cancers in connective tissue.

The real controversy is the extent to which airborne emissions can cause cancer in the public. Ethylene oxide does not last forever. It has a half life of around 7 months. That means that in seven months the chemical will break down 50%. Ethylene oxide can also be dispersed by wind, so members of the public have been less exposed to it than those who work directly with the gas.

However, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, this chemical has caused an additional 214 cases of cancer per 1 million people in Covington. Any chemical that causes over 100 cancers per 1 million people creates an unacceptable risk, so ethylene oxide gas is very dangerous.

Why Am I Just Now Hearing about This?

This is a great question. WebMD and Georgia Health News were the first to break this information to the public, even after the federal government collected information about the cancer risk caused by ethylene oxide. Unfortunately, many people are unaware that their cancer might have been caused by gasses released by BD Bard.

How do we know how much Bard is emitting?

The company has installed equipment which destroys 99.95% of emissions, however all measurements of emissions are based on self reporting. No government, private or independent group has ever tested or verified Bard’s estimation of emission levels.. This is higher than the government mandate that 99% of emissions be destroyed. However, some people believe that the amount of ethylene oxide is still too high in Covington and nearby areas. Nevertheless, the state has not yet required the company to take additional safety precautions.

What if I Have Developed Cancer?

Cancer has many causes, some of which are genetic. But some cancers are more common after exposure to ethylene oxide. If you have lived in this community for years and developed cancer, we understand that pointing a finger at ethylene oxide makes sense.

MG Law is a leading Georgia law firm that helps those injured through no fault of their own. If you have a legal question, we can help. Please contact our toxic tort lawyers today for a free consultation.

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