The Environmental Protection Agency under the Trump administration invited companies to retroactively amend emissions records of a deadly carcinogenic chemical. This week on Intercepted: Investigative reporter Sharon Lerner explains how 270,000 pounds of the chemical ethylene oxide vanished from the public record right after the EPA determined that it was more toxic than previously known. Ethylene oxide is a colorless and odorless gas used to produce many consumer goods and used extensively as an agent in the sterilization of medical equipment.
Despite the EPA’s transition to new leadership under the Biden administration, regulatory capture is a persistent obstacle in the agency’s ability to protect public health and the environment. And as Lerner reports, a disproportionate number of poor communities and communities of color have yet to be alerted to the fact that elevated levels of cancer-causing ethylene oxide permeate the air they breathe. We also hear from a group of Texas women who believes their breast cancer diagnoses are linked to exposure to the chemical.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
Roger Hodge: I’m Roger Hodge, the deputy editor of The Intercept, and longtime editor of Sharon Lerner, one of our investigative reporters who covers the environment, and toxics, and pollution.
We’ve been chasing the story for years now. That really gets started in 2018, when the EPA issued a National Air Toxics Assessment. Suddenly, when that new assessment comes out, hundreds of communities around the country have a serious air pollution problem.
This latest story is called “Tracking the Invisible Killer.” One of the things that Sharon found as she was reporting was that the public data in the EPA’s databases — that are buried in its website — was that the data was changing.
Sharon starts digging, talking to experts, asking the EPA: “What’s going on?” The companies are saying, “Well, we went back, and checked, and we discovered that we had over-reported.” Well, why is this? Well, in 2018, suddenly, they had a big problem because they were way over the safety limit.
Well, why did that happen? Well, we suspected that maybe the Trump EPA had something to do with that. The EPA asked them — invited them — to go back and revise their emissions. And that is a much more pernicious story.
What Sharon’s reporting in this story, and many others, demonstrates is that you can’t trust the EPA. You have to put pressure on the EPA and put pressure on the government because the regulatory agencies are confronted with multibillion-dollar propaganda — misinformation budgets from industry. They’re outgunned, even when the EPA is not actively corrupt as it was under Trump. Ethylene oxide is just one example. The Trump administration gutted — gutted — air pollution protections in all kinds of ways, and the damage they did will take a long time to undo.
But what does all this translate to? It translates to: How many people are we going to sacrifice for these conveniences that these chemicals provide for people? How many thousands of people, per million, are you willing to kill? But, ultimately, all they care about is the bottom line.
And one way or another, the only thing that’s going to prevent this pollution is political action and active citizenry who are going to fight. And it’s never going to end. Be careful, read the fine print, and keep the pressure on the regulators and on the politicians who are actively undermining.
Intercepted lead producer Jack D’isidoro spoke with Sharon about her story.
Sharon Lerner: I’m Sharon Lerner. I’m an investigative reporter at The Intercept.
Ethylene oxide has been recognized as a dangerous contaminant for decades, but it was only at the end of 2016 that the EPA assessed the chemical and figured out that it was 30 times more carcinogenic than previously thought.
In 2018, they included this updated number to do a nationwide analysis of air pollution and, in doing that, they were able to show that there are a number of communities around the country that were hotspots for EtO, or ethylene oxide. And in Lake County, that was one of them.
Newscaster: Erica, that canister over there, that is an air monitor and it has detected ethylene oxide and it’s far from the only one. And that makes residents in the area pretty nervous.
SL: So in Lake County, as the folks gathered to try and figure out what this pollution is and deal with it, they end up also discovering one person has the same kind of cancer as another person has. And sometimes they’re rare cancers.
So this woman named Patty Bennett who I spoke with, she’s recently been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer; she goes to a meeting about the chemicals and ends up, randomly, sitting next to someone else who has exactly the same random cancer who’s young, even younger than she is. And it was that kind of thing where it’s, you know my cancer and the cancer of the person across the street, and down the street — and it feels like a lot to all of them.
Newscaster: Levels of ethylene oxide, a potentially cancer-causing gas, popped up in the blood of people living near one plant in the northern suburbs.
Newscaster: What’s in the air? That’s the question many in this room want to know. There’s worry after a limited study by UIC found higher levels of ethylene oxide in the blood of people living near Medline, a medical sterilization facility in Waukegan.
SL: None of these people can tell you for sure that this is why they got this cancer. But when you have cancer at a young age, which is the case with a bunch of the folks that I spoke to, and then you layer on the additional fact that you guys have been living in an area which, as they discovered in 2018, was inundated with a carcinogen, it all begins to take on this layer of significance.
Jack D’Isidoro: What is ethylene oxide? What is it used for? And how dangerous is it?
SL: So ethylene oxide is the chemical that ends up being incredibly useful in industry.
It’s used to make ethylene glycol, which is this building block of lots and lots of products: cosmetics, many kinds of plastics, antifreeze, and it’s also used — ethylene oxide — as a sterilizing agent. So about half of the medical products in the U.S. are sterilized by being exposed to ethylene oxide. It’s a known carcinogen. And there isn’t a question that it’s carcinogenic in people. It’s well established.
In 1990, Congress did these amendments to the Clean Air Act, and they ended up deciding that the acceptable number of cancers to be caused by a contaminant is one in a million, which means that, basically, if you have a million people, then they’re gonna say that the amount of a chemical that is OK to have in the air is the amount that would cause — over a lifetime of exposure — one cancer in a 1,000,000 people.
President George H.W. Bush: Last year, I submitted a bill to ensure that future generations in this country will breathe clean air. And we propose to do this through cleaner factories and power plants; cleaner cars, cleaner fuels. And we felt — and we still feel — that we can achieve our goal without major harm to the economy and without a massive job loss. In our legislation, in the agreement — [fades out]
SL: On average, Americans are facing about 30 or 32 cancers per million, that level of risk. So it’s already above the 1 in 1,000,000 that the law set out. But during the Bush administration, they came up with another number, and that’s 100 in 1,000,000, and they deem that sort of the upper threshold of what’s acceptable, right? I think 100 in 1,000,000 is quite a lot.
You know, it’s a very strange thing, because when people hear: Oh, the EPA calculated this number, well, then you kind of think, “Well, they calculated a number, so then everybody should be guaranteed not to be exposed to levels above that number, right?” That’s how it should work.
But that’s not how it works. What happens is that EPA calculates this number — and it’s a number! It’s basically the scientific division of EPA, which is very different from the regulatory part. So, in order to get this number integrated into rules is a whole separate process. So even after it passes, and people can measure the level of which they’re exposed above what the EPA says is safe, the level of EtO is in the air they’re breathing, and yet, there’s not that much they can do about it.
In Willowbrook, there was a sterilizing plant owned by a company called Sterigenics. And the folks in Willowbrook did some very serious organizing. They were furious about the pollution and they were very well-connected. They were very effective in organizing and calling the attention of state legislators to their problem, and their plant was closed.
It’s also true that in Willowbrook this was a relatively privileged and white community. And they managed to get the attention of EPA like no other community that’s been exposed.
JD: The EPA inspector general released a report saying that only nine out of the 25 communities that they labeled a high priority because of their exposure to so many chemicals, only nine out of 25 of them were notified at all. How did racial and economic disparities determine who was notified?
SL: We found that it was actually 109 census tracks around the country where people had a cancer risk above 100 in 1,000,000 — which again, is the somewhat arbitrary cut-off that the EPA came up with in terms of what’s an acceptable cancer risk from air pollution. Overwhelmingly, these are communities that are more likely to be communities of color and most of them have not been alerted to the problem.
So yeah, 30, 40 is scary, but in a lot of these places, and including in Lake County, and certainly in the other town that I write about a lot, Port Neches, Texas, it’s well over 100.
Ethylene oxide is really a problem that disproportionately affects people of color.
Hilton Kelley: Here we are at the park at Port Neches-Groves.
SL: Hilton Kelley is from Port Arthur. He grew up there. And he’s been a really vocal activist on air pollution issues down there. And there are tons of air pollution issues down there, not just ethylene oxide.
HK: Whenever they are processing this ethylene oxide, we’re in very close proximity: Port Arthur, Nederland, Groves — we are literally surrounded by refineries and chemical plants. So on any given day, you will be getting your fair dose of sulfur dioxide, or potentially ammonia oxide, benzene, or 1,3-butadiene, which are all known carcinogens. This is why we have the tenth largest population with high cancer rates. We have a disproportionate number of people with respiratory problems. We have a disproportionate number of people with hypertension, and liver, and kidney disease. And most of your medical professionals know that it’s large and in part because of the air toxicity in our community.
Lori Thibodeaux: Well — [indistinct name] was diagnosed, everybody came over and we were like, shocked.
Lucky Seven: Right.
LT: Like, there’s no way. Like, this is impossible. That’s what I felt like. I felt like everybody was kind of in shock.
Lucky Seven: We were.
Dodie Harrington: Absolutely. Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know if it was when Lori or Christie, was it?
Christie Trahan: I was in a clinical trial for [fades out] …
SL: So the Lucky Seven is — confusingly, I guess — a group of eight friends. They call themselves the Lucky Seven because they all feel that they’re lucky enough to have seven best friends. That’s what they told me. And they grew up in Port Neches-Groves, which is — there are two little towns that are on the Gulf Coast.
There’s a plant there in Port Neches, which is the biggest producer of ethylene oxide in North America. And that plant has been putting out ethylene oxide for decades, where people are kind of monitoring these local polluters, are aware of them, they’re keeping an eye on them, they’re reading about them. In Port Neches, there really wasn’t that level of awareness. And there certainly wasn’t that level of awareness when the Lucky Seven were growing up. They’re now all about 52.
And 10 years ago, when they were 42, one of them named Dodie Harrington was diagnosed with breast cancer. And at the time, she thought, “Well, I’m the one.” Because they’d say, in a group this size, one of you is bound to get breast cancer. So she felt like she was the one. But then as the years went on, two others in the group were diagnosed with breast cancer. And so now, they’re 52; in their group of eight friends, three of them have breast cancer.
Jill Pierce: You just can’t get away from the chemical plants and the refineries anywhere in this area to put schools. Every which way you turn, there’s a chemical plant or a refinery.
SL: Jill Pierce grew up in Groves, Texas. She is one of two twin sisters, Jill and Jane. And she’s one of the Lucky Seven
JP: When the first of our Lucky Seven group was diagnosed with breast cancer, she invited us all to dinner one night at a local restaurant, Colichia’s Italian restaurant. And it was at that dinner that she broke the news to all of us that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
So she had a double mastectomy, underwent chemo, it was grueling. And then about four or five years later, the second one of our group was diagnosed with breast cancer. And we just thought, “Well, that’s really strange: two out of our eight have had breast cancer.” She underwent a double mastectomy, chemo.
And then about a year later, the third one in our Lucky Seven group of friends was diagnosed with breast cancer. And when the third out of eight was diagnosed, I just thought: “This cannot be a coincidence. This has to be related to some type of chemical exposure.” And so I started trying to figure out what it could be.
And then ultimately, in September of 2020, we have a group Facebook chat with our group — our Lucky Seven group. And someone had found a news article out of Illinois that talked about ethylene oxide causing breast cancer.
Another one of the Lucky Seven grew up in this second house right here.
LT: In March of 2017, I was diagnosed. I found it and I thought, “It’s got to be just — it’s got to be an infection of some type. There’s no way that three of us could have breast cancer, and then there’s no way that I could have cancer, just you know, right — a year after Christie did.”
SL: Lori Thibodeaux is one of their close friends. And she still lives really near the plant.
LT: Oh, we were outside of the high school for drill team practice, right outside, within yards of the refinery, I would think. Right across the street. Directly.
As far as the Environmental Protection Agency, I never hear from them regarding ethylene oxide. I didn’t know, in particular, that that’s what we’re all breathing on a daily basis.
JD: How did large amounts of ethylene oxide, 270,000 pounds, vanish from the public record just a couple of years after the EPA determined it was more toxic than previously known?
SL: We have something in this country, the EPA has something called the Toxics Release Inventory. And in 1986, the EPA began requiring any facility that put out certain dangerous chemicals in their emissions to report how much they were releasing. And this was right after Bhopal.
Tom Brokaw: The scenes are simply hellish, so much suffering from India’s invisible killer. At one point, an official said one death was being recorded every minute from the poison gas leak in the city of Bhopal.
John Palmer: Authorities now say the toxic gas that escaped from a Union Carbide plant on Monday has killed at least 1,600 people, and they say another 50,000 people may suffer serious aftereffects such as blindness and sterility. The Union Carbide insecticide plant has been [fades out] …
SL: Here too, we had been having incidents in the U.S. And so it was decided there is this Right-to-Know Act that companies would have to report how much they release, which is a reasonable thing. And it’s in the interest of transparency, right? But it’s super hard to double-check these reports.
So you can find them online, and I did sort through them. But it’s really hard to know the veracity of the numbers they’re putting in there, right? It’s up to the companies to report them, right? The EPA doesn’t have the resources to actually do the reporting themselves, so they take industry’s word for it.
There are 770 chemicals that are covered. And there are 21,000 facilities. So if every facility is reporting up to 770 chemicals, that’s a huge number, right? So the EPA isn’t going through every report and saying, “Oh, actually, that’s not right!” So I started looking at the ethylene oxide reports. And I talked to the folks in Lake County. And they told me that they had downloaded the number from the TRI, and they were preparing to make a presentation, and they were double-checking the figure. And they went back to the EPA website, and whoops! It was way different from what they originally had written down. It was much, much less all of a sudden. And it was in fact, a much bigger thing.
We started looking over the TRI reports for all the big emitters of ethylene oxide. And it turns out that 12 of the facilities had retroactively revised their reports downward — in many cases, by a whole lot. And when you add up all the changes that were made together, it was a disappearance [laughs] of almost 270,000 pounds.
What the companies have said, those of them that have gotten back to me, have been more or less, “Oh, well, we were over-estimating before. So now what we have is accurate. We just realized we were over-estimating.” Well, theoretically, that could be true. But obviously something happened here. And we know what happened. We know what happened right before these changes were made. What happened was that the EPA found this chemical to be way more dangerous, and so rather than be on the hook for posing dangers to the communities that are gonna get really mad at you, if they understand them, they change the numbers. That’s how it looks to me.
So there are a lot of people around the country who are still breathing this stuff and just have no idea. And the other way to make this invisible, visible is through this modeling that we have in the piece of Port Neches where you can see what the cancer risk is. And when we did that around Port Neches, we were able to see that the area that had an elevated cancer risk was greater than 1,000 square miles. So, we wouldn’t have seen that otherwise. And, in fact, the thing that is crazy about that is that those numbers we use to construct that visualization were from EPA. EPA had done that modeling in 2019. They just didn’t tell anyone who lived there.
So we luckily were able to obtain that and to put it out there so people can see it. But, until then, the folks who lived there hadn’t seen it.
JD: That’s crazy.
SL: Isn’t it? And also, of course, it’s not just the people living right next to the plant. When you look at that, you realize that just goes on, and on, and on. It goes past Port Arthur. It goes, like I said, 1,000 square miles.
JD: You know it’s clear that industry has this sort of upper hand. And I always ask myself: What is the point of the EPA? If we think most recently with the Trump administration and how the people appointed to be the head of a bunch of different agencies but, in particular the EPA ,were assigned to basically dismantle the agency they were in charge of.
SL: You sometimes see these incredibly deregulatory administrations, and I do think that the Trump administration was just more extreme than any before it and really turned the purpose of the agency on its head — basically did the opposite of what was in the interest of public health and the environment almost all the time. So yeah, it feels like: What is the point?
So now we have the Biden administration back in there, and pendulum swings. It doesn’t swing from totally protective to totally serving industry; it kind of swings from totally serving industry to somewhere in the middle, you know? But there’s a lot of pushing to be done and still a ton of wiggle room as to what happens with this agency and there’s always going to be the force, the incredible — really incredible — force of the lobbying and just the power of the companies that are being regulated that have their own kind of structure for fighting back in this incredibly powerful way. They have money. They have more resources than the agency that is regulating them. So there’s always going to be that, and yet I think we have seen under Trump how much it matters who’s in charge. So I think that we’re going to see an improvement, and we’re also going to see that it won’t be enough.
JD: Sharon, thank you so much for talking to me.
SL: Of course! My pleasure.
JD: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted.You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast.
Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is me, Jack D’Isidoro. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Will Stanton mixed the show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. A special thanks to Verónica G. Cárdenas for some of the audio today.
Until next time, I’m Jack D’Isidoro.
Correction: March 31, 2021
Two clips that referenced areas outside of Lake County, Illinois, have been edited out for clarity.