How the EPA's efforts to lower toxic gasses could affect medical sterilization

The Environmental Protection Agency released the names of 23 U.S. locations and territories where medical sterilizer facilities are producing dangerous levels of ethylene oxide, an odorless emission that's associated with high cancer risks, the agency said Aug. 3. 

Chronic exposure to ethylene oxide has been associated with the risk of cancer, reproductive health issues and neurotoxicity, according to the Department of Labor. In December 2021, lawmakers granted the EPA the authority to track ethylene oxide emissions. 

The 2022 risk assessment analyzed the risk of cancer at medical sterilization companies spanning more than 30 states. To determine risk, the EPA said it measured cancer cases per million people exposed to each facility, and 23 cities saw at least "100 additional cancer cases." By the same metric, this means one additional cancer case per 10,000 people exposed over a lifetime, according to the EPA. 

Breast cancer and blood cancer are the most common cancers associated with ethylene oxide emissions, the EPA said. 

The news could affect half of the medical sterilization industry. The FDA reports that ethylene oxide is used to sterilize more than 20 billion devices every year, which is about 50 percent of production levels. 

Of the 23 locations, four are in Puerto Rico and three are in Maryland. Some of the sterilization companies listed are Becton Dickinson, Medtronic and Midwest Sterilization Corp.

To address the health risks, the EPA will host a national webinar Aug. 10 to guide the sterilization facilities and their surrounding communities on future steps. 

As part of a larger effort, the HHS is aiming to slash greenhouse gas emissions from the healthcare industry in half by 2030, and more than 600 hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, private healthcare systems and suppliers have signed the pledge as of June 30.

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