EPA holds community meeting on commercial sterilizers in Salisbury

SALISBURY, Md. – A chemical used to sterilize medical equipment and spices was the topic of conversation in Salisbury Thursday night. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held a community meeting to inform residents on how the chemical is used in town.

EPA Holds Public Meeting

The meeting centered around regulations the EPA is preparing to propose in relation to ethylene oxide (EtO), and facilities that use them. One of those facilities, Trinity Sterile, is found in Salisbury.

“We got a lot of questions about businesses. And, there’s a daycare really close to the facility. We are understanding of those concerns,” said EPA Senior Risk Communications Advisor, Madeline Beal.

In July of 2022, the EPA embarked on a study, aiming to identify locations put at risk by commercial sterilizers, and enact harm-reducing initiatives. Researchers collected data and information from commercial sterilizer facilities across the United States, as well as weather data to predict where escaping emissions might reach.

Of 90 locations studied, the EPA identified 23  in close proximity to commercial sterilizers with concerning levels of risk. One of those was Trinity Sterile.

“Commercial sterilizers are a type of facility that uses ethylene oxide to sterilize things. In most cases, it’s either medical equipment or spices,” said Beal. “We did this analysis so we can set better rules to lower that risk. We have rules that can help reduce that amount of  EtO that’s coming out of facilities like this one.”

Health Risks of EtO

Beal says inhaling EtO typically does not cause short term, acute health risks like nausea, vomiting, and breathing problems. She says those effects typically happen only at very high levels of exposure. However, children are much more susceptible to those risks, she says.

And, lifetime exposure to the chemical can lead to an increased risk for developing breast or white blood cell cancers, says Beal. The EPA uses a risk-determining benchmark of 100 per million, explains Beal; she says if one million people live near a facility that uses EtO, the EPA expects 100 of them to develop cancer.

“It is probably a small piece of a person’s overall cancer risk. But, that said, we really are taking it very seriously, and we’re taking actions to reduce that risk,” said Beal.

Expected Regulations

Beal says the purpose of Thursday’s meeting was the prepare the public for increased regulations the EPA plans to propose in the near future. “We wanted to make sure that communities understood what is happening in their location, so they could be part of that public process if they wanted to,” she said.

The EPA is eyeing two different sets of actions, aimed at reducing the public health risk in communities near the active use of EtO.

“[One is] a rule under the Clean Air Act that governs how much EtO can come out of a facility like [Trinity Sterile],” said Beal. “We’ll be looking at different controls that can help reduce the amount of EtO that comes out of the building. It really is targeted to risk to people that live near facilities like this one.”

Facilities that use EtO must do so under controlled emissions; meaning, EtO needs to be maximally filtered out of air before it is released back into the atmosphere. That is done using machinery called stacks. Beal says that equipment can be up to 99% effective. However, the EPA is focusing on reducing what are called “fugitive emissions” through steps like better filtration and repairing leaks.

“They’re emissions that are escaping from the building, and they can escape through doors and windows, leaks, cracks. But, those are the emissions that are not getting sucked up through the control system,” said Beal.

Another course of action, would fall under The Federal Insecticide Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. Beal explains that because EtO is used to kill things like bacteria and germs, it’s considered a pesticide in medical uses.

“That regulation governs how ethylene oxide can be used as a pesticide,” said Beal. “This action is going to be looking at what needs to be in place for a facility to use EtO as a pesticide.”

Business Community Fears Ban

This community meeting comes separately, but not long after a proposed ban on EtO in Maryland. While the bill likely won’t make further progress in the 2023 Maryland General Assembly session, business leaders fear it could make a come back.

“Unfortunately, right now there is no replacement for that compound. And, that is being worked on by the EPA. But, to outright ban the substance right now would potentially cause a loss of jobs,” said President and CEO of the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce, Bill Chambers. “[Trinity Sterile] employs about 120 folks.”

Chambers also points to two other similar facilities across the Bay Bridge, and McCormick, which is based out of Cockeysville, Md.

“It’s also something the spice industry in Maryland uses, McCormick, specifically, in the production of what they do,” said Chambers. “I think the eventual elimination of ethylene oxide will happen sooner than later. It is a carcinogen. But, the employees that are producing this are well protected. They’re within federal and state guidelines.”

While Chambers believes that companies that use EtO wish to move away from it in the future, a replacement compound needs to be found first. Adding, he hopes this conversation around EtO will result in a deeper dive into balancing the health safety of community members, and their livelihoods.

“The EPA is here to do their job. They’re here to protect the environment, the community. Trinity Sterile is an excellent steward of what they do. They’re in complete compliance with federal and state regulations and laws,” said Chambers. “I think they, more than anyone as an employer, want to retain the employee base that they have, and look for replacement compounds that do the same job that this ethylene oxide compound does for hospitals and medical facilities.”

Looking Ahead

The EPA says more information on the proposed regulations will be released in the coming weeks. Looking ahead, the agency will hold a national public webinar when the rules are officially proposed.

“We are going to keep sharing more information. So, if people are concerned, we want to make sure they can learn more,” said Beal. “We are very committed to reducing risk in this community, and all the others that have potential EtO exposure.”

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