November 20, 2018

Duckworth, Durbin, Foster & Schneider Ask FDA to Develop Safer Alternatives to Ethylene Oxide

Ethylene Oxide Emissions Have Been Linked to Increased Risk of Cancer in Neighboring Communities


[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – U.S. Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Dick Durbin (D-IL), along with U.S. Representatives Bill Foster (D-IL-11) and Brad Schneider (D-IL-10), wrote to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today asking the agency to convene an interagency task force to examine alternatives to ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing chemical and known carcinogen that is used to sterilize medical equipment at facilities and hospitals. The Members of Congress emphasized how current safety standards for ethylene oxide are woefully inadequate and urged the FDA to immediately begin investigating alternatives.

“The public health threat of ethylene oxide is real,” the Members of Congress wrote. “Even at low levels, ethylene oxide is dangerous to public health. It is critical that FDA begin investigating alternatives to the ethylene oxide sterilization process and prioritize swift adoption of safer methods and substances. Americans should not be forced to choose between sterile medical equipment and increased cancer risks.”

Ethylene oxide is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a known carcinogen, but current EPA safety standards have not been updated in more than a decade and do not appear to be protective of public health, allowing facilities to continue to endanger communities across the country. For instance, Sterigenics, a facility in Willowbrook, Illinois has pumped ethylene oxide into the air for more than 30 years. The community surrounding that facility has the second highest risk of cancer of any community in the country.

As a result, Duckworth, Durbin, Foster and Schneider have urged EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler to update the safety standards around ethylene oxide and to assess ethylene oxide exposure nationwide. Duckworth and Durbin have also written to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requesting the agency do more to protect American workers from ethylene oxide and explore alternatives for sterilization.

In addition, Duckworth, Durbin and Foster have asked the EPA and Sterigenics to test local air quality for harmful ethylene oxide emissions after the facility installed new pollution controls this summer and make their results available to the general public, prompting the EPA to begin testing air quality, but they have yet to release those results publicly. The three have also asked the EPA Inspector General to investigate if EPA complied with all requirements and protocols when it intentionally withheld critical health information from the public about the cancer risks posed by Sterigenics – and they’ve asked the EPA to fund DuPage County public health efforts. Meanwhile, Durbin, Duckworth and Schneider have asked the EPA to perform updated air sampling and modeling studies to determine the cancer risks at two additional facilities in Lake County, Illinois, that release ethylene oxide emissions.

A copy of the letter the Members of Congress sent to the FDA today is available online here.