EPA warns of increased cancer risk in two N.J. towns from air pollutant

By: - August 9, 2022 6:53 am

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified 23 towns nationally — including two in New Jersey — as having higher cancer risks due to commercial sterilization factories there that spew a toxic gas called ethylene oxide. (Getty Images)

Two New Jersey communities — Franklin in Sussex County and Linden — are among 23 towns nationally that the federal Environmental Protection Agency has identified as having higher cancer risks due to commercial sterilization factories there that spew a toxic gas called ethylene oxide.

The EPA will hold a public webinar Wednesday night for residents to hear about the issue broadly. Virtual hearings will be held in September in affected communities for residents to learn more about local risks.

Ethylene oxide is a colorless, odorless, flammable gas that factories use to make other chemicals and products like antifreeze and plastic bottles, and to sterilize things like medical equipment. About 100 commercial sterilizers operate in the United States, according to the EPA.

EPA investigators discovered the elevated cancer risks in the 23 communities in their research to develop a new emissions rule for hazardous air pollutants. The agency plans to propose stronger regulations later this year for hazardous emissions, including ethylene oxide.

Ethylene oxide — which also can be present in household cleaners, personal care items, and fabrics — can increase the risk of blood cancers and breast cancer for people who breathe it in over the course of years, according to the EPA.

In Franklin, a commercial sterilization plant run by Cosmed Group Inc. uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical devices. Cosmed acquired the facility in an industrial, rural area north of Route 94 in 1997, and that year, it installed a catalytic oxidizer to control emissions, according to the EPA.

In Linden, a factory uses ethylene oxide to sterilize agricultural products like spices and nuts. The facility opened in 1986 on Brunswick Avenue in an industrial zone north of Interstate 278. It operates four sterilizers that were installed between 1986 and 2000 and uses a two-stage scrubbing control system to control emissions, according to the EPA.

Both facilities report a 99% emission reduction, but “fugitive emissions” cause an elevated cancer risk, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

The EPA and state Department of Environmental Protection are now reviewing controls on regulated equipment and processes at both locations to determine if more air pollution controls are needed, according to both agencies.

Ethylene oxide is used to sterilize about half the nation’s medical devices, or 20 billion devices annually, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA is working to identify alternatives to ethylene oxide, according to the EPA.

The state Department of Environmental Protection monitors air pollution at 30 stations around the state.

Four sites — in Camden, Elizabeth, New Brunswick, and Chester — measure the outdoor concentration of air pollutants, including ethylene oxide. All of those sites detected ethylene oxide, even in rural areas away from industry, suggesting a “background level” of the gas pervades the state’s air, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.