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EPA raises concern about elevated cancer risk for people living around B. Braun plant near Allentown

A medical device company suspended operations in a Chicago suburb for most of this year after mounting community pressure prompted the governor to order the facility to stop releasing a carcinogenic chemical into the air.But more than 700 miles to the east, a Lehigh Valley medical device company hasn’t faced the same pressure to stop emitting the chemical — ethylene oxide — even though it released about 50 percent more of the chemical than the Sterigenics plant outside Chicago in 2016, the latest year with EPA emission data for both companies.That may change as regulators and elected officials turn their attention to the issue.B. Braun, a German medical and pharmaceutical device company with a plant in Hanover Township, Lehigh County, by Lehigh Valley International Airport, is the 12th biggest polluter of ethylene oxide nationwide, according to EPA’s latest cancer-causing pollution data. Ethylene oxide, a gas commonly used to sterilize medical equipment, is linked to breast cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma..embed-container { position: relative; padding-bottom: 56.25%; height: 0; overflow: hidden; max-width: 100%; } .embed-container iframe, .embed-container object, .embed-container embed { position: absolute; top: 0; left: 0; width: 100%; height: 100%; }

B. Braun has broken no laws in its ethylene oxide emissions, which from 2008 to 2015 increased from about 1,900 pounds to 7,600 pounds, according to EPA data. The company is permitted to release up to 20,000 pounds of the gas per year, said Colleen Connolly, a spokeswoman with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Since 2015, B. Braun’s emissions have decreased each year to 4,660 pounds in 2018, according to the company and the EPA.Sterigenics had to agree to drastically reduce its emissions to less than 100 pounds before state regulators permitted the facility to resume operations, according to the Chicago Tribune.The EPA says there may be an elevated health risk in areas where the possibility of getting cancer from breathing the polluted air over a lifetime is greater than 1 in 10,000 people. The agency applies that standard when determining which facilities need to reduce emissions. On July 10, the EPA contacted the DEP with its concerns about ethylene oxide emissions from B. Braun, Connolly said. DEP likely will inspect the facility in the coming weeks, including reviewing possible ethylene oxide leaks, she added.In 2014, the data show that B. Braun accounted for 92 percent of all of Pennsylvania’s ethylene oxide emissions, putting more than 41,000 residents near its plant at a higher risk of developing cancer under the federal standard.B. Braun, whose U.S. headquarters is in Bethlehem, is using technology to control and reduce its ethylene oxide emissions, said Caroll H. Neubauer, chairman and CEO of B. Braun Medical Inc. in Bethlehem. The company — one of the largest employers in the Lehigh Valley with about 2,000 workers — develops, manufactures and markets medical products and services to the health care industry.“B. Braun’s highest priority is the health and safety of our employees, our community, and millions of patients who depend on our medical products,” he said in a prepared statement. “We would not operate our facility if we believed our operations created an unsafe environment for our employees or our neighbors.”The EPA has changed its view on ethylene oxide in recent years. In the past decade, research has shown a stronger connection between the chemical and cancer, prompting the agency in 2016 to change ethylene oxide’s classification from probable human carcinogen to human carcinogen.“This means that EPA now believes EtO is considerably more potent for inducing cancer in humans than previously thought,” Edward Nam, air and radiation division director for the EPA in Chicago, said in 2017 letter to Sterigenics that was cited by the Chicago Tribune.One Hanover Township neighborhood immediately surrounding the airport — bordered to the west by the Lehigh River and to the east by Schoenersville Road, and including Route 22 — has a cancer risk from ethylene oxide that is greater than 200 times that of the state average risk, which is 2.4 per 1 million people. Nationally, that ratio is 1.3 in 1 million.MAP: Cancer risk from environmental toxins in every Pennsylvania Census tract var divElement = document.getElementById(‘viz1563308352994’); var vizElement = divElement.getElementsByTagName(‘object’)[0]; if ( divElement.offsetWidth > 800 ) {’420px’;’650px’;’100%’;’587px’;’887px’;’px’;} else if ( divElement.offsetWidth > 500 ) {’420px’;’650px’;’100%’;’587px’;’887px’;’px’;} else {’420px’;’650px’;’100%’;’587px’;’887px’;*1.77)+’px’;} var scriptElement = document.createElement(‘script’); scriptElement.src = ‘’; vizElement.parentNode.insertBefore(scriptElement, vizElement);

The above map shows the EPA’s calculated overall risk from cancer-causing environmental toxins in in each Census tract in the Lehigh Valley and surrounding region. Tracts are shaded blue if their risk is below the statewide average, and orange if they are above average. Hover over a place to see more information.The EPA estimates cancer risk using a calculation that factors in emissions and weather patterns, among other things.B. Braun pointed out that the EPA notes on its website that the amount of ethylene oxide in the U.S. isn’t high enough to have “immediate health effects.” The company said its chief medical officer found that cancer rates associated with ethylene oxide in the area around B. Braun are comparable or lower than cancer rates in other parts of Pennsylvania.Exposure to toxic chemicals is just one factor that determine rates of cancer. Others include age, income and lifestyle choices, such as smoking and diet.There’s no national or Pennsylvania limit on ethylene oxide emissions, but companies need a state permit to emit a ton or more. Under ethylene oxide emission standards, which were set in 1994 and, according to the EPA, are expected to be updated this year, facilities permitted to emit the chemical must set up a system to vent the chemical. Factories that emit more than 10 tons have to have an aeration room.Those rules don’t apply to hospitals, clinics and other facilities that use ethylene oxide and emit significantly less than plants like B. Braun. But the EPA said recently that the agency intends to issue regulations for health facilities emitting ethylene oxide.
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In the Lehigh Valley, St. Luke’s University Health Network is the only other ethylene oxide emitter. In 2014, it released 17 pounds of ethylene oxide from its Fountain Hill hospital, compared to 6,880 pounds that year for B. Braun. St. Luke’s said it emits about 28 pounds a year now and has safeguards to keep employees from coming into the contact with the chemical.“St. Luke’s has always been conscientious about using ethylene oxide in a very limited capacity,” said spokesman Sam Kennedy. “Its use is limited to terminally sterilizing medical devices that can’t be sterilized by any other method.”Ethylene oxide makes up about 50 percent of all medical device sterilizations for products ranging from wound dressing to stents, according to the CDC. In the last two decades, however, some safer alternatives have emerged, including peracetic acid and nitrogen dioxide.Lehigh Valley Health Network for example, uses ozone sterilization, which consists of hydrogen peroxide and oxygen and has no toxic emissions, according to the CDC.B. Braun said it uses some alternative methods for sterilizing, however, certain medical products require ethylene oxide.U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-7th District, said last week she will ask the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the effects of ethylene oxide pollution on Lehigh Valley residents. She is also joining a bill asking the agency to target toxic chemical polluters and alert affected communities. “The health and safety of my constituents comes first and they should not have to worry that the air they breathe will make them sick, which is why I’m doing everything I can to get updated data on how the pollution from this chemical could be affecting our communities,” she said in a prepared statement.A number of elected officials, including Hanover Township Council Chairman Bruce Paulus, and some environmental groups were unaware of ethylene oxide pollution in the Lehigh Valley, as were several affected residents interviewed by The Morning Call. B. Braun’s manufacturing plant is in an industrial area, but just down the block from Hanover Township’s Allendale neighborhood, with townhouses, a playground and a dog park.Stephanie Rivera, 23, lives there and like many of her neighbors, has never heard of ethylene oxide.Stephanie Rivera, 23, lives near B. Braun and is worried about chemical pollution in the air. (Binghui Huang / The Morning Call/)Rivera, a cosmetology teacher, said she’s worried about cancer causing chemicals because breast cancer runs in her family. But she’s not quite sure what to do about it.“I don’t even know what steps to take,” she said.A block from Rivera, Christina Brewer is growing plants inside her house in hopes of improving the air for her 4-year-old son, Alex, a curly-haired energetic kid who has asthma.Brewer said she doesn’t pay too much attention to news and politics. But she was distraught to hear from a reporter about the chemical in the air around her.“It makes my stomach hurt,” she said. “There’s got to be a better way for them to go about it.”Christina Brewer is with her 4-year-old son Alex, who has asthma. They live in a neighborhood near the B. Braun plant. (Binghui Huang / The Morning Call/)Her neighbor Frank Johnson, a retired steamfitter and welder, is not worried at all. He’s worked in refineries and chemical plants for most of his life. And at 59, he still smokes a pack of cigarettes a day. He also noted that everything from processed food to medication is potentially dangerous.“You can’t shield yourself from chemicals,” he said.The case of SterigenicsUnlike the situation with B. Braun, which has brought no public outcry, emissions from the Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook, Illinois, had people up in arms.A series of events converged to make Sterigenics a success story for environmental activism, said Dan West, a legislative advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council.Sterigenics is an international company that sterilizes products for the medical device, pharmaceutical and food industries. Last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services posted a study that concluded ethylene oxide emissions from the Willowbrook plant posed a public health hazard. The study referred to EPA air monitoring results that showed high levels of the chemical around the plant. The department did not conduct a similar study near B. Braun.Public pressure and media attention prompted Illinois’ newly elected Democratic governor to take a hard line against the company. And in February, the state’s Environmental Protection Agency ordered the plant to stop using ethylene oxide until the company addresses the problem. That effectively shut down the plant’s operations, until the company and state regulators reached an agreement Wednesday to drastically reduce emissions and reopen the plant.The Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook, Illinois, in September 2018. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune/)The health study and EPA cancer pollution data were released a few month before the contentious 2018 election, West said.“It was the perfect storm of campaign politics, the timing of the release, the organizing energy of the community to get the members of Congress to do something,” he said.There’s been similar community organizing in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, where Dow Chemicals Co., is a top emitter of ethylene oxide. However, the state’s political leaders did not take action, West said.MORE: Largest sources of ethylene oxide pollutionIn Delaware, a community group has lobbied legislators to better regulate facilities that emit the chemical after a New Castle company leaked 2,600 pounds of ethylene oxide because of a machinery malfunction last year.Researchers have known ethylene oxide is linked to higher cancer risk for decades, said Marilyn Howarth, the director of University of Pennsylvania’s Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology. In the 1970s and 1980s, people who used ethylene oxide in hospitals to sterilize equipment were getting cancer, she said. So, hospitals began to sterilize equipment in sealed off rooms.In 2016, research documenting high cancer rates in people who worked in facilities with ethylene oxide as well as rats exposed to the chemical prompted the EPA to recalculate the cancer risk associated with breathing in the chemical. That new calculation was reflected in the cancer risk data the EPA published in 2018.Emma Cheuse, an attorney at Earthjustice, a nonprofit that litigates environmental cases, said the EPA needs to update its regulations for companies that emit the chemical.“In the now 10 months since EPA released information about the serious problem of cancer-causing ethylene oxide pollution, EPA has failed to take the necessary steps to protect public health from this chemical,” she said.Howarth said state regulators also can step in to reduce the amount of ethylene oxide that companies like B. Braun are allowed to emit.“Even when federal standards aren’t decreasing emissions, Pennsylvania could take action to decide its citizens shouldn’t have increased cancer risk,” she said.Pennsylvania’s constitution guarantees residents the right to clean air, she said.The B. Braun plant at 901 Marcon Blvd. in Hanover Township, Lehigh County. (Monica Cabrera / The Morning Call/)“Breathing air that puts you at 500 times the risk more than other people, is that breathing clean air?” she said.There’s not much people can do without regulatory interion, said Jennifer Sass, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.“If it’s water, don’t drink the water. You can’t say don’t drink the air,” Sass said.Air pollution can be invisible, added her colleague West, making it harder to recognize and rail against than, for example, Flint, Michigan’s, brown water, which obviously was contaminated.For those who live near B. Braun, Sass suggests keeping windows closed on bad air days.“That’s not a long term solution, you need air flow and air exchange,” she said.Eugene Tauber contributed to the reporting.
Source: Morningcall

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