Millie Corder didn’t know why there was so much cancer in her family. Her daughter, Cheryl, was only 27 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and 34 when the disease killed her in 2002. By that time, Millie’s husband, Chuck, had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He recovered, only to develop skin cancer in 2005. The next year, Millie herself was diagnosed with colon cancer and, two years after that, with breast cancer. Those years were a blur as she shuttled back and forth between her office, her home, and doctors’ appointments. While she was recovering, Chuck died of his cancer. Two years later, her stepson, Brian, was diagnosed with and died from lung cancer.
Millie Corder still can’t say for sure why her family was devastated by cancer. But since burying her daughter, stepson, and husband, she’s learned that the neighborhood where they lived and worked in Lake County, Illinois, has been inundated with dangerous amounts of a colorless, carcinogenic gas called ethylene oxide. Others in Gurnee, as well as nearby Waukegan, have been experiencing similar realizations over the past two years, since they began gathering in the basement of a local church to see what they could do to stop the pollution.
Stop EtO in Lake County was founded to limit the cancer-causing gas, which was coming from local plants, but it also became a way for members to trace their troubling cancer “coincidences.” Yvonne Davies, whose follicular lymphoma began as a hard but painless lump behind her left ear, learned that twin brother of another group member, Sarah Crawford, had developed the same cancer; he had grown up near Davies’s house. Patty Bennett, who had moved to Gurnee to escape a landfill that was near her previous home, went to a local forum on chemicals and cancer and found herself randomly seated next to a young woman who had been diagnosed with the same rare form of leukemia that she had. And Chandra Sefton, who has lived in both Waukegan and Gurnee, was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia: a form of cancer that is caused by ethylene oxide exposure in mice and rats.
Peggy Innes, who had three separate cancers, felt like a walking statistical anomaly. “I’m like, ‘Where are all these bloody cancers coming from?’” Innes said of her reaction to getting a colon cancer diagnosis, after having the disease in both breasts. “I had the test for the BRCA gene, and it came back negative. I don’t smoke. I exercise. I’m a line dancer. I eat healthy. What the hell? Then I found out about the ETO group. And I thought, Aha! Oh my God, we’re living in a cancer zone.”
Jamie Kelter Davis for The Intercept
Lake County, Illinois, is home to two industrial facilities that release ethylene oxide. Medline in Waukegan uses the gas to sterilize medical equipment. And Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee uses ethylene oxide to make other chemicals and consumer products.
Amid mounting pressure from advocates and a flurry of lawsuits, including one filed on behalf of Sefton and Bennett, Illinois passed two laws regulating ethylene oxide in 2019. One — named for Matt Haller, who died of cancer after living near a plant in Willowbrook, Illinois — limited the emissions from sterilizing plants. Another, which applies to Vantage, required the plant to do air modeling of the gas to illustrate the precise risk the emissions pose to people nearby and to get a more restrictive permit. Meanwhile, both companies agreed to reduce the amount of the gas they released. Medline’s new permit capped its emissions at 150 pounds per year. For Vantage, the new limit was 110 pounds. And Lake County agreed to conduct air monitoring near both facilities.
John Aldrin, a local scientist and member of Stop EtO in Lake County, kept a close eye on the air monitoring. From his house, he could see the homes of three people who developed cancer, and Aldrin hoped that the monitoring done after both facilities began operating under stricter permits would finally show their air was safe. Alternatively, he thought, the monitoring might reveal an ongoing danger that would lead to further action from the companies and regulators. What Aldrin didn’t anticipate was that the county’s monitoring would show a risk — and that no one would address it.
Yet that is exactly what’s happened. Even in Illinois, the state that has done the most to combat ethylene oxide pollution, people are still exposed to levels of the chemical above a safety threshold the Environmental Protection Agency set more than four years ago. Realizing that the community had been exposed for decades, Aldrin and his neighbors didn’t feel they could take the emitting companies and the regulators at their word when they said they had addressed the toxic threat.
Some chemicals have a distinct smell. Others kill fish that float on the water or discolor soil, water, or air. But ethylene oxide is colorless and has no odor unless it’s present at very high concentrations. And there is no obvious way to know when it is being released — and entering people’s bodies — at unsafe levels. So to ensure their air is safe, local activists rely on public records.
But while the community group was plumbing the public records on ethylene oxide, companies that release the chemical were quietly conducting their own campaign: changing those records to make their emissions appear smaller and less harmful, thus erasing hundreds of thousands of pounds from the public record. What’s worse, in at least some cases they appear to have done so at the invitation of the EPA, which, under the leadership of former chemical industry executives appointed by President Donald Trump, aggressively rolled back air pollution safeguards.
Photos: Jamie Kelter Davis for The Intercept
Scientists have known for decades that ethylene oxide can cause cancer and more immediate harms. Its lethality is what makes the chemical so useful as a sterilizing agent for medical equipment and spices. Released into a chamber with these products, it disrupts on contact the cellular metabolism and reproductive processes of microorganisms. Chemical companies use ethylene oxide to produce other chemicals that are the building blocks of a wide range of products, including brake fluid, antifreeze, coolants, cosmetics, food additives, agrochemicals, and several kinds of plastics.
Yet in its gaseous form, even tiny amounts of ethylene oxide are extremely dangerous. Acute exposure can cause skin burns, twitching, convulsions, and coma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The cancers are thought to come from long-term exposure. Over a lifetime, an annual average of just .0002 micrograms per cubic meter of air — an infinitesimal amount — is associated with a one-in-a-million risk of getting cancer, according to the EPA’s 2016 calculations. That one-in-a-million standard was set by a 1990 amendment to the Clean Air Act, but since 2008, the EPA has increased the “upper limit of acceptability” to a risk level of 100 cancers in a million people: That’s 100 cancers in addition to the cancer risk without the contamination. Using that less protective number, the safety threshold for ethylene oxide is .02 micrograms per cubic meter of air.
In Lake County, all of the more than 400 ethylene oxide measurements in the air near the two plants performed by the local health department in 2019 were above the one-in-a-million risk threshold, and most were above even the less protective level. Some were way above that number. In one spot near Spaulding Elementary School in Gurnee, the amount measured in November 2019, when converted to an annual average, was more than 50 times the EPA’s weaker cancer risk level; that’s a cancer risk of more than 5,000 in a million. Around the same time, in a residential area near the Vantage plant, the amount measured was more than 88 times the safety level and more than 8,800 times the older, more rigorous EPA threshold, corresponding to a cancer risk of 8,800 in a million.
“I figured if the numbers were high, they’d take action,” said Aldrin, who asked both the county and the state to investigate the ongoing risk posed by the gas after he saw the monitoring results. But after they were published in June, neither the county health department nor the state environmental agency put any additional limits on either facility or took steps to further lower the emissions. “Instead,” Aldrin said, “I heard crickets.”
Kim Biggs, the public information officer for Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, wrote in an email that the results of the Lake County Health Department’s air monitoring “did not provide evidence of the need for additional testing.” Biggs also wrote that “the canister monitoring performed by Lake County Health Department was never intended to be long-term.”
Hannah Goering, communications manager for the Lake County Health Department, told The Intercept that the EPA and the IEPA have reviewed the monitoring data and that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the CDC, “is working on a health risk assessment, which is not yet complete. After that report is completed, the Illinois Department of Public Health has committed to produce a cancer incidence rate study including Lake County.” Goering’s email also pointed out that the county doesn’t have the power to limit emissions from the plant. “The IEPA is the regulatory body, and they can and do take actions when their regulations are violated.”
While Aldrin and others in Stop EtO in Lake County were unable to stop their local facilities from emitting ethylene oxide, they were aware that in Willowbrook, Illinois, a more affluent community just an hour’s drive from Gurnee, residents did manage to get a local sterilizing plant shuttered in 2019. That success was due in part to air monitoring that showed the Willowbrook plant was releasing dangerous amounts of the gas. So when the local authorities declined to follow up on their disturbing monitoring results in Lake County, Aldrin and his neighbors decided to do some monitoring of their own.
The widespread danger of ethylene oxide pollution became starkly apparent in 2018 when the EPA issued its National Air Toxics Assessment, which includes an estimated cancer risk for each census tract in the U.S. based on individual chemicals. Two years before, another division of the environmental agency called IRIS had assessed ethylene oxide and found that it was 30 times more carcinogenic than previously thought. The agency combined the new safety threshold with data on the emissions from individual plants to show that more than 100 census tracts around the country had cancer risk levels, due to air pollution from the chemical that were above the 100-in-1-million threshold of concern. Most of that risk was due to ethylene oxide pollution, and most of it fell in communities that were poorer and have lower percentages of white residents than the rest of the country, as The Intercept has previously reported.
Yet more than two years after the data was released, the vast majority of the people living in these toxic hot spots have not received any help from the EPA, either alerting them to the deadly problem or addressing it. And many remain unaware of the risk they face.
While the members of Stop EtO in Lake County and a loosely affiliated group in Georgia were immersed in air monitoring results and the latest scientific reports about ethylene oxide, Jill Pierce and Jane Leger had never heard of the chemical. The twin sisters grew up in Port Neches, Texas, a Gulf Coast community where a plant produces ethylene oxide and emits more of the carcinogen than any other facility in the country. They were part of a tight circle of friends who met in elementary school. “We called ourselves the Lucky 7 because each one of us was lucky to have seven best friends,” said Pierce.
The members of the Lucky 7 were only dimly aware of the chemical plant that served as the backdrop for their youth. The factory, previously owned by Texaco, was just a half mile from the elementary school and middle school that several of them attended; its stacks framed the football field where all but one of them practiced on the Port Neches-Groves High School drill team. In the 1990s, a plastic packaging company called Huntsman Petrochemical bought the plant and operated it for more than 20 years before selling it last year to a Thai company called Indorama Ventures. But the girls knew nothing of these business dealings and were also unaware that in 2016, the plant added 250 million pounds to its existing 1-billion-pound ethylene oxide production capacity, making it the largest single-site producer of the chemical in North America.
Texas law requires companies proposing any increases to their air pollution emissions to get agency authorization from the state. Before approving a plant expansion, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality can require modeling of the impact of the added emissions on the local community, a visualization of the otherwise invisible risk posed by the pollution it emits. But the expansion of the Port Neches plant’s ethylene oxide production capacity didn’t trigger modeling. Asked why the company wasn’t required to show how the change would affect the community, Tiffany Young, a spokesperson for the TCEQ, wrote in an email that the company “provided reductions of ethylene oxide at other facilities at the site to offset the increases in ethylene oxide from the new unit. Modeling ethylene oxide was not required since the emission decreases were larger than the proposed emissions increases.”
According to Todd Cloud, an environmental expert who worked as a consultant to petrochemical companies on issues related to the Clean Air Act for 23 years before he began using his expertise to help communities affected by pollution last year, the plant’s handling of the issue is perfectly legal, even though it thwarts the intention of environmental law. “It’s a master class in how to tiptoe through the Clean Air Act,” said Cloud. “They don’t want to undertake a project that will trigger ethylene oxide modeling because they know they can’t possibly pass.”
While Texas sidestepped modeling, the EPA used a state-of-the-art technique combining wind patterns, stack heights, and emissions data to calculate the precise risk ethylene oxide posed to the community surrounding the Port Neches plant and, without calling any attention to them, put the modeling files on its website in 2019. That modeling was based on approximately 22,000 pounds of emissions, although the plant had reported annual emissions that were almost three times that amount in recent years. But even using the lower number, the area in which cancer risk was elevated above one in a million due to ethylene oxide stretched for more than 1,000 square miles, according to a visualization of the modeling done by Cloud and the Center for Applied Environmental Science.
At the middle school that Jill, Jane, and their friends attended, the cancer risk from ethylene oxide was more than 400 in a million. In some residential areas, the risk was almost 1,000 in a million. If you use the plant’s emissions numbers for 2016 — 60,836 pounds of ethylene oxide — the risk near the middle and elementary schools climbs to more than 1,000. Within the plant boundaries, the impacts were even higher.
Yet even after EPA did this precise accounting of the community’s elevated cancer risk, neither the agency nor the plant’s company alerted the thousands of affected residents. That, Cloud said, was also legal. “Why didn’t they shout that from the rooftops? Because they didn’t have to. There was no regulatory requirement to do so.”
“It’s a master class in how to tiptoe through the Clean Air Act.”
Asked why the company didn’t tell the Port Neches community about the risk posed by its plant’s ethylene oxide emissions, Huntsman Chemical responded, “Huntsman places care for the environment and the health and safety of our associates and the communities where we operate at the forefront of everything we do.” The email also pointed out that “Huntsman sold the Port Neches site to Indorama Ventures, which began operating the plant in January 2020.” Indorama did not respond to a request for comment. Texaco, which owned the plant in the 1980s, referred questions about the facility to the current owner.
Even though it determined that the chemical was much more dangerous than previously thought, the EPA’s 2016 assessment of ethylene oxide didn’t force the federal agency to do much. The calculation itself was not binding. The EPA did update one rule that governs the release of the chemical, the so-called miscellaneous organic chemical manufacturing, or MON, source category. The agency said that the new requirements for vents, storage tanks, and equipment at the plants will “provide an ample margin of safety to protect public health.” But, by its own calculations, that change will only reduce nationwide emissions by less than 1 percent. Meanwhile, several other rules that apply to ethylene oxide, including one that affects the Port Neches plant, are seven years overdue. Environmental groups including Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, the Environmental Integrity Project, and the Sierra Club have sued the EPA in an effort to force them to issue the overdue standard.
“It’s pretty shocking that the EPA has done nothing for people exposed to these chemical plants more than two years after that announcement of that important finding,” said Emma Cheuse, a staff attorney at environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice who has been representing communities affected by ethylene oxide in Louisiana, Texas, and West Virginia.
In the case of ethylene oxide, the EPA has done worse than nothing in recent years, taking steps that benefit the companies using the chemical at the expense of the people who breathe it. Almost since it was established in 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency has struggled to regulate industries that are far better resourced than the agency. Under Trump, the agency lost — or perhaps abandoned — this decades-old fight. Headed by two unapologetic boosters of the energy and chemical industries, the EPA rolled back dozens of regulations that were put in place to protect health and the environment.
The EPA has done worse than nothing in recent years, taking steps that benefit the companies using ethylene oxide at the expense of the people who breathe it.
The EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation was a textbook example of regulatory capture. The office, which oversees much of the oversight related to ethylene oxide, was first headed by Bill Wehrum, a corporate lawyer, who spent the bulk of his career fighting air pollution regulations. Among Wehrum’s former clients was the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, a trade group to which Huntsman Chemical, among other ethylene oxide producers, belongs. In 2019, Wehrum was replaced by Anne Idsal Austin, a Texan with close ties to the oil and gas industry who left the EPA through the revolving door to join legal and lobbying firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. (Austin’s well-connected political family owns the ranch where then-Vice President Dick Cheney shot a companion while hunting quail.)
In March 2020, the EPA Office of Inspector General issued a report on the agency’s failure to alert communities with elevated cancer risks from ethylene oxide, including Port Neches, about the dangers they faced. The report castigated the EPA for leaving vulnerable communities in the dark and recommended the agency provide residents living near 25 high-priority facilities “with a forum for an interactive exchange of information with EPA or state personnel regarding health concerns related to exposure to ethylene oxide.” Only nine of the communities had been warned by the EPA or state authorities about their risk of cancer from ethylene oxide.
But a year later, the agency still hasn’t reached out to the remaining communities. The more than 150,000 people living within 2 miles of the other 16 plants have heard no official word of warning from the EPA.
Income and race appear to be factors in whether people received attention from the agency to the toxic air they were breathing, according to The Intercept’s analysis of demographic data of impacted areas. Of the communities living near the 25 “high-priority facilities,” those with populations that are at least 60 percent white and have an average per capita income greater than $30,000 per year were nearly three times more likely to have been informed of the dangers of ethylene oxide than communities that are less than 60 percent white and have an average per capita income under $30,000.
Among those who were not informed by the EPA about the risks they faced from ethylene oxide emissions were the people living within 2 miles of a Lyondell plant in Channelview, Texas, which emitted 3,101 pounds of ethylene oxide in 2018, according to an EPA database called the Toxics Release Inventory, or TRI. Eighty-nine percent of residents there are people of color and average per capita income is less than $24,000 per year. The residents of Bayport, Texas, who live near another Lyondell plant didn’t hear from the EPA either, even though that plant released 13,436 pounds of ethylene oxide in 2018 — more than three times the amount released by the facility in Willowbrook, Illinois, before the affluent community nearby erupted in outrage over the ethylene oxide it was releasing.
Instead of heeding the inspector general’s advice and holding meetings in the predominantly low-income communities that were affected, the Trump EPA doubled down on its refusal to do so. In December 2020, the EPA’s deputy chief financial officer, David Bloom, issued a memo to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler explaining that the inspector general and the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation had entered a dispute resolution process over the ethylene oxide issue but that no resolution was reached despite Bloom’s mediation.
In an unsigned memo the agency released two days earlier, the EPA offered an unusual justification for its inaction in response to the inspector general’s report on ethylene oxide: It didn’t trust its own data. “Risk communication must rely on accurate information,” the memo said, going on to explain that it felt more follow-up work was necessary before reaching out to communities. In a status report posted in January, the EPA said it had sent letters to the state of Texas to get more information and would share information with nearby communities, and that it was focused on “developing additional, more refined assessments” for ethylene oxide-emitting plants. Although it had already modeled the cancer risk from ethylene oxide at this point and put the data files in the public docket, the report didn’t mention them in its January report, saying only that “additional information on the Indorama Port Neches facility will be provided on this website in future updates.”
EPA press secretary Nick Conger wrote that the EPA is gathering the most current information on emissions as part of the follow-up to the Office of Inspector General’s March 2020 report and will share that information with the public. According to Conger, outreach in some additional communities was planned for 2020 but delayed because of the pandemic: “Going forward, we believe that a wide variety of communication tools need to be considered, recognizing that the first step is always to talk with local government officials and community leaders to determine what form of outreach will be most effective and most welcome.”
While environmental advocates have questioned both the EPA’s failure to address ethylene oxide pollution and its explanation for that inaction, the agency was right about one thing: It’s hard to know how much of the gas has been released, as the community activists in Lake County discovered one night in January 2019.
The group was going over a presentation they would be giving to their neighbors the following month. As part of their preparations, they were reviewing emissions from the Vantage plant, which they had downloaded a few months before from the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory. But the numbers they had previously found in the spreadsheet and copied into their presentation were no longer there. Before, the database had shown that the facility released 11,547 pounds of ethylene oxide in 2016. This time, when they checked, the 2016 emissions total had inexplicably been reduced to 1,126 pounds.
“At first we thought, wait, did we pull that wrong? The data is completely different,” said Sarah Crawford, a member of Stop EtO in Lake County who was gathered with the rest of the group that night. “We almost felt like we were going crazy.”
They weren’t going crazy. Unbeknownst to them, on October 18, 2018, Vantage had revised its previously posted reports of ethylene oxide emissions in the TRI for every year starting in 2016 and going back to 2010. And in every case, the new numbers were substantially less than the numbers the company initially reported. Suddenly, the 8,422 pounds the Lake County plant had previously said they emitted in 2013 appeared as 2,831. For the previous year, 13,444 pounds was shaved to 3,424. Altogether, by changing seven years of TRI reporting, the company had eliminated the record of more than 64,000 pounds of ethylene oxide emissions.
By changing seven years of TRI reporting, Vantage had eliminated the record of more than 64,000 pounds of ethylene oxide emissions.
Vantage wasn’t the only company quietly rewriting its emissions history to make ethylene oxide emissions lower than it had previously reported. In Louisiana, Wilma Subra, a consultant who had been working to limit toxic pollution in St. Charles, noticed a change in the numbers for a Union Carbide plant, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical. Subra has worked closely with the community surrounding the plant for years and was acutely aware that the 35,858 pounds of ethylene oxide the company had previously reported releasing in 2016 made it the second biggest emitter in the country that year. Yet when she was looking at the database again one day during the fall of 2019, Subra noticed that the number had been dramatically reduced to 13,883.
Dow had changed its 2016 numbers in August 2019, along with its reported emissions for 2015 and 2017; in October 2019, it lowered its reported releases for 2014. And in August, the company also reduced its reported ethylene oxide emissions for 2017, 2018, and 2019 from its plant in South Charleston, West Virginia.
Subra asked representatives of the company about the revisions and was puzzled by their response. “They said they went back and checked out their calculations and said they weren’t really that high,” she recalled recently. When she asked why their previous numbers had been so inaccurate, “Union Carbide just said they were mistaken,” she said.
When The Intercept asked about these changes, Dow spokesperson Ashley Mendoza wrote in an email that “Dow is constantly applying the best science and technology to more accurately calculate and reduce our EO emissions. As science and technology have improved, we have been able to capture more precise data and have corrected our past reporting accordingly, and in full compliance with current EPA regulations.”
Vantage declined to comment for this article.
Around the country, other companies responsible for large amounts of ethylene oxide emissions were making similar changes. All told, seven companies retroactively revised their TRI reports of ethylene oxide emissions for 12 facilities since 2018, when news broke about the additional dangers posed by the chemical, according to an analysis of EPA records done by The Intercept and Material Research. In the process, almost 270,000 pounds of ethylene oxide pollution vanished from the public record.
Among the companies that changed their reported ethylene oxide emissions in the EPA database is medical device manufacturer Becton Dickinson, which resubmitted its reports to the TRI for its sterilizing plants in both Covington and Madison, Georgia. Sasol Chemicals trimmed more than 67,000 pounds of ethylene oxide emissions from the public record for its plant in Lake Charles, Louisiana, including revising its 2015 releases from 17,861 to 3,146 pounds and its 2016 reported emissions from 14,744 to 1,495 pounds. Meanwhile, Dow, which retroactively decreased its reports for its Hahnville, Louisiana, plant, also revised TRI entries for its plants in Institute and South Charleston, West Virginia. Overall, Dow removed more than 75,000 pounds of ethylene oxide pollution from its previous reports to the EPA database.
“There’s no doubt that these numbers are being reviewed and reduced because there’s increased public concern,” said Keri Powell, an environmental attorney who specializes in air permitting. The recent attention to dangers of ethylene oxide has created a mess for them, she said.
Almost 270,000 pounds of ethylene oxide pollution vanished from the public record.
Russell Johnson, a communications manager for Sasol, said that the company changed its TRI reports after it tested some of its ethylene oxide control devices in 2019 and found that Sasol had been “significantly over-reporting our ethylene oxide emissions for several years.”
While the TRI reports for the Port Neches plant were not retroactively revised, they did decline significantly after 2018, when an EPA report highlighted the elevated cancer risks of the pollution on nearby communities. The amount of ethylene oxide the plant reported releasing in 2019 declined 43 percent from the previous year, although production at the plant was just 7 percent lower. Several other companies’ emissions dropped dramatically too, including Sterilization Services of Virginia, which reported a 54 percent reduction in releases. The company explained the reductions this way in a submission to the EPA: “Used more accurate Emissions calculations.”
Shockingly, at least some of these companies appear to have changed their records because the Trump EPA asked them to. According to Sarah Huoh, a spokesperson for Edwards Lifesciences, “In 2018, the EPA requested that Edwards revise its 2016 and 2017 submissions because the company was over-reporting its EO emissions per guidance provided by EPA.” The request came from U.S. EPA Region 2 in 2018, said Huoh, adding that the agency “inquired about the numbers for the ‘fugitive or non-point air emissions’ relative to the ‘stack or point air emissions,’ proposing that the wrong definitions might have been utilized and resulted in over-reporting.” The spokesperson did not say why the EPA believed the plant had been over-reporting its emissions.
Between 2010 and 2016, according to EPA figures, the Edwards Lifesciences plant in Añasco, Puerto Rico, emitted an average of 1,495 pounds per year. The average of the amounts posted in the three years after the revision is 506 pounds.
The EPA also reached out to Taminco, a subsidiary of Eastman Chemical, which has plants that emit ethylene oxide in both Longview, Texas, and St. Gabriel, Louisiana. “EPA, TCEQ and the LDEQ asked if we had any updates to our EO emissions estimates,” confirmed Amanda Allman, who handles corporate communications for Eastman. But Allman said the EPA’s unusual request was not the only reason the company changed its TRI entries. “Eastman and Taminco representatives had already begun to scrutinize our historic emissions estimates to ensure we did not overstate our EO emissions.”
Some of these companies appear to have changed their records because the Trump EPA asked them to.
Russell Johnson of Sasol said that “no one told us to revise the numbers,” and the EPA’s Madeline Beal stated that “EPA’s TRI Program did not ask any facility to revise ethylene oxide emissions reporting to TRI as a result of the IRIS assessment.” When asked whether anyone else at the agency — including high-level former chemical industry executives whom Trump appointed to run the Office of Air and Radiation — had requested or suggested revisions, Beal was less definitive. “While we are not aware of any communications from EPA instructing companies to change their reporting to TRI outside of the data quality processes that we described in the previous response, I can affirm that, going forward, the Biden Administration is committed to letting science, data, and evidence drive EPA decision-making processes on environmental health risks.”
It’s certainly possible that, as Sasol contended, some of these companies previously overestimated their emissions. The EPA can fine them for underreporting the amount of pollutants they release. Yet facilities have a strong incentive to present lower numbers to the TRI, which people living near these plants may find reassuring and, in any case, have no way to check for accuracy. This helps explain previous instances of companies being caught lowballing their TRI reports, according to Elena Craft, senior director for climate and health at the Environmental Defense Fund.
“There’s plenty of evidence showing those numbers are underestimates,” said Craft, who pointed to the discovery, after Hurricane Harvey, that Valero Energy had vastly underreported the amount of benzene released from its Houston refinery. She also noted ozone modeling shows that industry releases greater amounts of volatile organic compounds, which form ozone, than companies admit. “Their VOC estimates just don’t match up to the true amount necessary to generate the ozone levels,” she said.
Even if previous overestimates can explain some of the spate of downward revisions — which were only seen in the years just after the EPA assessed ethylene oxide as far more dangerous than previously thought — the efforts of companies to prettify their historical pollution records calls into question the validity of the Toxics Release Inventory, a tool the EPA introduced to increase corporate accountability.
In 1986, the EPA began requiring industrial facilities to track and report to the TRI the amounts of certain chemicals released into air and water that have serious health or environmental effects. The move came two years after a gas leak from a pesticide factory in Bhopal, India, killed thousands of people and injured hundreds of thousands more.
Although it was designed to provide transparency, the TRI is notoriously opaque. By law, polluting facilities are required to use “the best readily available data” but are allowed to estimate if real measurements aren’t “readily available.” The calculation process is confusing even to some industry insiders. “They use air pollution estimates, which are sometimes based on their own tests. In other cases, it’s unclear what they’re based on,” said Keri Powell, the attorney who specializes in air permits. “Even the government can’t get the underlying bases for these estimates unless they pay a huge fee to the industry group that created them.”
Meanwhile, the resulting estimates are imprecise at best, according to Todd Cloud, the former air pollution consultant for industry. “Estimate is too kind a word,” said Cloud. “Some of those numbers we use, we call them WAGS. That’s short for wild-ass guesses.” It can be particularly difficult to get an accurate accounting of a chemical that’s dangerous at very low levels, as ethylene oxide is, he said. Even at its most sensitive, equipment can’t detect the gas below a certain level.
“Some of those numbers we use, we call them WAGS. That’s short for wild-ass guesses.”
The EPA doesn’t have the staff to verify the accuracy of each of the TRI reports that are prepared and submitted by industry. The agency now requires reporting for 770 chemicals, including ethylene oxide. And although the EPA can fine companies over TRI violations, it rarely does. While more than 21,000 facilities filed TRI reports in 2020, the EPA filed only five enforcement actions over TRI violations last year. According to EPA senior risk communication adviser Madeline Beal, the TRI program does analyze the quality of data companies submit to the TRI. “Part of this process includes making data quality calls to certain facilities throughout the year to verify the accuracy of reported information,” Beal wrote in an email.
Even companies that want to provide an accurate accounting of their emissions may struggle against the limits of their ability to measure them, according to Cloud. “At the end of the day, a lot of what we do as environmental professionals is not math, it’s art,” he said. “And some people would say it has a splash of voodoo.”
For ethylene oxide, the changes to the TRI did have an almost magical effect. With the submission of several online forms, a huge portion of the country’s ethylene oxide problem disappeared — or at least the public record of it did.
Ten years ago, at the age of 42, Dodie Harrington was the first of the Lucky 7 to develop breast cancer. Jill Pierce well remembers the night when Harrington told the rest of the group about her diagnosis. They were out for dinner and, true to form, even though she had her two daughters and an upcoming surgery to worry about, Harrington emphasized her concern for her friends over her own troubles. She told them that statistically one member of a group their size was bound to get breast cancer, as Pierce recalled recently. “‘She said that if one of us had to get it, she was glad it was her and not any of us.’”
But as much as she wanted to, Harrington, who underwent a double mastectomy and chemotherapy, wasn’t able to spare her friends what she had endured. Four years ago — around the same time that Harrington discovered her cancer had spread to her liver and spine — another member of the Lucky 7, Christie Trahan, was diagnosed with breast cancer. The following year, as the friends were turning 50, Lori Thibodeaux was struck with the same cancer.
It wasn’t until last fall that Pierce and her sister first read about ethylene oxide and discovered that the area where they grew up and raised their own children had an elevated cancer risk due to the pollution. At that point, the residents of Lake County, Illinois, were already carefully monitoring their air. And in Willowbrook, the local sterilizing plant had been closed for more than a year. While the EPA had already modeled the ethylene oxide emissions in Port Neches, Texas, “no one knew about this,” said Pierce. In any case, it was too late for them to do anything about their exposures.
Pierce and her friends were likely exposed to massive amounts of ethylene oxide while they were growing up. There are no public records of emissions from the plant when they were in school. The first year that plants were required to report their emissions to the TRI under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act was 1987, a year after they graduated from Port Neches-Groves High School. That year, the factory released more than 161,000 pounds of ethylene oxide into the air. Based on the modeling that the EPA did of the plant and the EPA’s latest safety threshold, that would have given some residents a cancer risk that was thousands of times higher than what the EPA now deems acceptable.
“It’s not just ethylene oxide, we’re also exposed to sulfur dioxide, benzene, hydrogen sulfide.”
Back then, the EPA’s assessment of ethylene oxide was 30 times less sensitive. But even using that far less protective standard, the federal agency knew the plant posed a serious risk. In 1989, it calculated that the lifetime cancer risk due to ethylene oxide pollution from the Port Neches plant was between 1 in 10 and 1 in a 100. Separately, another carcinogen released by the plant, butadiene, gave the people living near the Port Neches plant a lifetime cancer risk greater than 1 in 10, according to the agency report — the highest risk in the nation.
The EPA didn’t mention the cumulative effect of the two pollutants, a problem that still plagues communities near industrial facilities. “It’s not just ethylene oxide, we’re also exposed to sulfur dioxide, benzene, hydrogen sulfide,” said Hilton Kelley, ticking off just a few of the dozens of chemicals emitted into the air by the refineries and chemical companies near his home in Port Arthur, Texas, just south of Port Neches. “In Port Arthur, we are being exposed to an assortment of toxins. There’s a huge cumulative impact that residents have to contend with.” Along with ethylene oxide pollution from the Indorama plant, he also breathes the carcinogenic emissions from the Valero and Motiva refineries, among other polluting facilities near his home.
Yet when calculating cancer risk, the EPA doesn’t add the air pollution risks coming from different types of facilities unless they’re located at exactly the same location. And when assessing the environmental impact of multiple industrial plants, the agency doesn’t usually consider how exposure to several carcinogens increases risk.
For Kelley, a vocal environmental advocate who has spent years focused on the disproportionate burden of air pollution on Black people, the news that the dangers of ethylene oxide from the Port Neches plant extended to his hometown of Port Arthur and beyond came as little surprise. “This area has been plagued with tons and tons of chemicals. We’ve been crying out about this for years,” said Kelley, who said that the pollution has caused suffering in his mostly Black neighborhood. “Cancer is ravaging our communities.”
But for Pierce, who grew up in Groves and Port Neches, towns that have a greater proportion of white residents and a slightly higher income level than Port Arthur, the realization that she and her friends had been exposed to deadly amounts of carcinogens was a shock that changed the way she thought about the EPA and state environmental authorities. “I trusted that they were doing the right thing to protect the families in our communities,” she said with a bitter laugh.
Part of the difficulty regulators face is that keeping the cancer risk from ethylene oxide below 1 in a million — or even 100 in a million — would likely require shuttering many of the facilities that emit it. Industry has fought hard, and with some success, against the possibility. In Cobb County, Georgia, a sterilizing plant owned by Sterigenics closed in August 2019 because of concerns about cancer, only to reopen the following March after the governor declared a public health emergency due to the coronavirus. Although there are alternatives to ethylene oxide, the plant emphasized its importance during the pandemic, echoing the Ethylene Oxide Sterilization Association’s claim that the chemical is “critical to patient care.”
Ethylene oxide plays a similarly central role in the petrochemical industry. Over the past 15 years, the fracking boom has dramatically reduced the cost of the natural gas liquids used to produce the chemical. The abundance of natural gas has made it relatively cheap to manufacture at a time when the industry is anticipating waning profits from gasoline due to the shift to electric cars, giving ethylene oxide an increasingly central role in the petrochemical industry. The global market for ethylene oxide — estimated to be worth $45 billion in 2020 — is projected to expand to more than $64 billion by 2027, with much of that growth in the U.S.
The utility and profitability of ethylene oxide helps explain why some companies have fought so hard against the science that could skewer those profits. The American Chemistry Council, the trade group that represents chemical companies, has repeatedly argued that the EPA’s assessment of ethylene oxide was “significantly flawed” and is “causing unnecessary alarm.” A consultant hired by Medline, the sterilizer operating in Lake County, made the same argument to the Illinois Legislature in 2018, as has Dow Chemical, which also produces ethylene oxide. The ACC asked the EPA to change both the IRIS assessment and the cancer risk calculations based on it and has been lobbying Congress about the chemical.
The chemical trade group even helped the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality draft a state standard for ethylene oxide that was more than 2,000 times weaker than the one set by EPA, as The Intercept previously reported. After Texas finalized that less protective limit, Huntsman, which owned the Port Neches plant until last year and is a member of the ACC, petitioned the EPA last year to consider the state’s less protective number instead of its own standard when assessing the risk from ethylene oxide.
Industry has also called attention to the fact that the level of ethylene oxide can exceed the safety threshold even in spots where there isn’t a clear source of industrial emissions. Companies have pointed to these “background” levels as evidence that the IRIS standard is too low. But ethylene oxide does not just appear in the atmosphere by magic; some of the chemical found in the atmosphere comes from gas grills and automobiles, but the vast majority of free-floating ethylene oxide is simply pollution from previous industrial emissions and in no way exonerates industry for the harm it causes. The human body also produces tiny amounts of ethylene oxide, a fact the industry has attempted unsuccessfully to use against the overwhelming evidence that the chemical causes cancer.
Indeed, the IRIS number, which the EPA developed over several years based on studies showing that the chemical caused elevated rates of brain, lung, uterus, and lymphatic cancer, has withstood this assault. Despite the challenges, the agency has not withdrawn or altered it.
Instead the science is slowly beginning to spark increased scrutiny of plants that emit ethylene oxide. In Delaware, the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control recently fined Croda in part over excess ethylene oxide emissions. In St. James, Louisiana, the discovery that ethylene oxide emissions from a proposed Formosa Plastics plant would increase the cancer risk above 100 in a million for a local elementary school was part of the reason the federal permit for this $9.4 billion facility was suspended in November. And modeling done by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources in 2019 showed elevated cancer risk extends for miles beyond both a Sterigenics facility in Smyrna and another sterilizing plant in Covington, owned by Becton Dickinson. That revelation led to a drop in real estate prices in those areas and a wave of lawsuits. Sterigenics said that while it “empathizes with anyone battling cancer,” it plans to “vigorously defend against the plaintiffs’ unfounded claims.”
Photos: Jamie Kelter Davis for The Intercept
While the finding of dangerous ethylene oxide levels around the country may be inconvenient and ruinous for the companies that operate these facilities, it’s even more devastating for the people who live near them. Yet even those who are aware of the ethylene oxide pollution near them remain unable to pinpoint the precise risks they face.
Last year, Stop EtO in Lake County raised more than $2,200 from friends and neighbors, which was just enough to buy 11 air monitors. In the early fall, the group hung nine of the canisters in the yards of people living near the Vantage and Medline plants. On a hunch, they put the other two monitors near two Lake County warehouses where Medline stores recently sterilized products: one in Waukegan and the other in Libertyville, Illinois.
The results showed that ethylene oxide was still present near both the sterilizer and the chemical plant at 13 times the EPA’s less protective safety threshold and 1,300 times the concentration expected to cause one cancer in a million people exposed over a lifetime. Even more disturbingly, the Lake County group discovered, as Georgia residents had found in 2019, that the warehouses where sterilized products were put to “off-gas” after being doused with ethylene oxide also appeared to be releasing the carcinogen. Illinois doesn’t treat warehouses as polluting facilities, so these structures aren’t regulated by the state and have no permit caps on how much pollution they can emit. Yet the August testing, which the group did with an EPA-approved method, showed that ethylene oxide was in the air near one of the warehouses at more than 500 times the concentration associated with a one-in-a-million cancer risk. By another one of the warehouses in the area, the level of ethylene oxide was 1,350 times the most protective EPA standard.
The air monitoring, which the group had hoped might show the risk was finally gone, instead revealed that ethylene oxide was not only still in the air at dangerous levels but was also emanating from more sites than they previously realized.
“I have absolutely no trust that the authorities have taken care of this. Why should I expose myself any more?”
While both Vantage and Medline are subject to the low caps on ethylene oxide emissions set in their 2019 permits, by John Aldrin’s calculations, the monitoring shows they’ve exceeded them. “These numbers are just too high,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.” But they were only able to capture a few days’ worth of emissions, and there’s no other way to show for sure how much of the invisible gas is in the air near their homes.
Medline did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Stop EtO in Lake County would like round-the-clock monitoring to see how the amount of ethylene oxide in the air changes over time. The group has even investigated the possibility of buying equipment that would allow them to do that monitoring themselves, but the cost — roughly $100,000 — is way beyond their means.
In Louisiana, Wilma Subra wants — and is unable to afford — the same thing. “We desperately need air monitoring in St. Charles,” said Subra.
And in Georgia, a bill that would both require the state to do continuous monitoring of ethylene oxide and put new restrictions on warehouses that store products sterilized by the gas is already making its way through the state legislature.
Emma Cheuse, the Earthjustice attorney who represents several communities affected by the gas, is hoping the EPA will require air monitoring for all facilities nationwide that emit significant amounts of the gas. It’s just one of the changes that she and other environmental advocates hope the new administration will soon make. Among their top demands is that the agency issue the long-awaited updates of the rules affecting facilities that emit ethylene oxide and begin to account for the cumulative risk from multiple exposures to chemicals. Ethylene oxide is just one of dozens of air pollutants that add to the cancer risk near industrial plants. When you add in reproductive effects, birth defects, and other environmental and health effects, the class of hazardous air pollutants expands to 187. Accurately assessing these chemicals, including formaldehyde, an updated assessment of which is expected soon, will likely show many more toxic hot spots where cancer risk is elevated above a 100 in a million.
Advocates are also hoping the Biden EPA will abandon that less protective threshold and restore the original one-in-a-million limit for acceptable cancer risk. “One hundred in a million is too high,” said Kathleen Riley, an attorney at Earthjustice. “No person should have to get cancer for breathing their air.”
On the other side, industry is readying for a shift too. In December, the National Law Review noted that Biden’s focus on environmental justice might intensify the legal and regulatory attention to ethylene oxide. “Prepare a proactive litigation strategy,” the legal journal advised, suggesting that attorneys should confidentially look at their emissions data and consider how it might be used in court.
While more shifting numbers and legal battles are likely on the horizon, Peggy Innes doesn’t have the time or patience to wait and see how they play out. After living in Lake County for most of the past 50 years, Innes, who is now 70 and has had cancer three times, is preparing to move. “I’m going to get my house ready and get out of Dodge,” she said recently. Millie Corder, who lives alone after losing her daughter, husband, and stepson to cancer, is also seriously considering selling the home where she raised her family and relocating to pretty much anywhere else.
“If I could move tomorrow, I would,” said Corder. “I have absolutely no trust that the authorities have taken care of this. Why should I expose myself any more?”
In Texas, Lori Thibodeaux would also like to get away from the pollution she blames for the cancers that have struck so many in her hometown. “It’s not just us, the Lucky 7, it’s the girls the year ahead of us, and the girls that came after us too,” she said recently. Thibodeaux’s mother also developed cancer, as did her father and mother-in-law, who both died of it in the past decade. But she can’t afford to move. “I have too many doctor bills to pay.”