Ethylene Oxide Is a Carcinogen You Need to Know About

ethylene oxide
The EPA deemed ethylene oxide a carcinogen in 2016, yet plants across the country pollute the air with unsafe levels of the invisible gas. OSHA

Most of us are aware of the potential cancer-causing substances (aka carcinogens) that we should steer clear of. Asbestos, for example, is known to cause cancer of the lung, larynx and ovaries, as well as mesothelioma.

But residents in two Georgia cities have become aware of a relatively unheard-of carcinogen called ethylene oxide. That's because a WebMD story broke the news in early July 2019 that ethylene oxide was being pumped into the air in surrounding neighborhoods by three medical sterilization plants, two operated by Sterigenics in Smyrna (in metro Atlanta) and one by BD Bard in Covington, Georgia.


WebMD reported that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began a 10-year study on how ethylene oxide affects human health — in 2007. The results weren't good. In its 2016 report, the EPA determined ethylene oxide causes cancer. And the EPA's latest National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA), which was released in 2018, identified five areas in Region 4 (the Southeast) where the risks of cancer were higher due to exposure to ethylene oxide.

But the EPA decided not warn residents in these areas. The EPA report came as a shock to many Atlanta residents who'd never been informed of the local environmental threat, let alone even heard of the carcinogen in question.

"We were stunned to hear that we've been living right in the midst of this lethal cloud for 12 years," says Lisa Jonas, who lives just south of Smyrna. Her neighborhood is in Fulton County census tract 97, which has the third highest level of ethylene oxide in Fulton County, and the fifth highest in Georgia. "I was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago. It's very scary. We are furious that we have been kept in the dark all this time."


What Is Ethylene Oxide?

Ethylene oxide is a flammable, colorless gas with a sweet odor at room temperature. It's primarily used to produce chemicals like antifreeze, and in small amounts, it's used as a sterilizing agent and pesticide. But because of its ability to damage DNA, it's also a known carcinogen. And it is being released in mass quantities at plants like Sterigenics and BD Bard.

The National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says people who work at industrial facilities that produce the gas, as well as local residents living near them, are at risk for inhaling uncontrolled ethylene oxide emissions. The molecule is also one of the carcinogens present in tobacco smoke and in some medical products and cosmetics.


Lymphoma and leukemia are the cancers most commonly associated with ethylene oxide exposure, but stomach and breast cancers may also be associated with the chemical. And while cancer, reproductive problems, neurotoxicity and more are the clear risks for chronic exposure, a slew of unpleasant symptoms can result from even acute proximity to uncontrolled ethylene oxide emissions, including respiratory issues, headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, shortness of breath and cyanosis, which causes skin to turn blue.

According to a statement from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD), officials are working with Sterigenics in Smyrna and BD Bard in Covington, to implement voluntary improvements to control the release of ethylene oxide gas. In July 2018, another Sterogenics plant in Willowbrook, Illinois, was forced to shut down until it installed pollution controls to capture the massive ethylene oxide emissions. The EPA and Illinois EPA are monitoring the effectiveness of the controls, but residents in the area want the plant shut down for good.