Energy & Environment

Texas defends its less protective standard for highly toxic air pollutant during EPA meeting

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants to reclassify ethylene oxide as significantly more carcinogenic than previously thought. Texas is the only state to reject the EPA’s analysis.

In this Thursday, April 30, 2020, photo storage tanks at a refinery along the Houston Ship Channel are seen with downtown Houston in the background.

The state of Texas defended its position on the toxicity of ethylene oxide at a virtual meeting with federal environmental regulators on Tuesday.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in January announced plans to reclassify ethylene oxide — which is used to sterilize medical equipment and make products like antifreeze — as significantly more carcinogenic than previously thought. This classification would have implications for how much facilities are allowed to emit.

The move is at odds with Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s findings, which declared the chemical to be significantly less harmful. Texas is the only state to formally reject the EPA's analysis. Three of the top five polluters of ethylene oxide are located in Texas, according to an analysis of EPA data by Bloomberg Law.

The EPA’s proposal would continue to rely on the agency’s 2016 peer-reviewed classification of ethylene oxide as a human carcinogen and decline to use the TCEQ’s risk value for ethylene oxide instead of the EPA's 2016 value.

Dr. Sabine Lange, a TCEQ toxicologist, defended the state’s position during Tuesday’s meeting. She said the TCEQ’s own analysis demonstrated several flaws in the EPA’s 2016 findings.

“The EPA’s recent 2022 (miscellaneous organic chemical) reconsideration, and documents referenced in documents therein, do not adequately, scientifically rebut any of the significant EPA assessment flaws identified in the TCEQ petition,” she said. “Therefore, the TCEQ disagrees on the decision to rely on the EPA 2016 (Unit Risk Estimate) for (ethylene oxide) because it does not represent the best available science.”

Lange added that the EPA’s analysis “significantly” overpredicted lymphoid and breast cancer deaths linked to ethylene oxide.

Other speakers — like Jennifer Hadayia, the executive director of Air Alliance Houston — praised the EPA’s decision. Hadayia said communities located along the Houston Ship Channel have bared the brunt of ethylene oxide pollution for many years, and urged federal regulators to “strengthen protections from all ethylene oxide in Houston and across Texas.”

“Houston is considered an industrial cancer hotspot,” she said. “The decision the EPA is making today tells the community that the EPA hears them and that their work is worth it.”

This sentiment was echoed by Stephanie Thomas, a researcher for Public Citizen, a nonprofit advocacy organization. Thomas said Texas is among the top states that produce ethylene oxide emissions, “including several facilities that exceed levels of concern.”

“We also need to ensure that Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is held to account to enforce protective standards,” she said. “For too long, the state of Texas has sold out its people.”

The EPA’s announcement to uphold its 2016 findings followed Administrator Michael Regan’s visit to Houston in November.

“In Texas, residents in the Fifth Ward, Kashmere Gardens and Houston Ship Channel shared their concerns about air and water pollution from nearby facilities,” he said previously at a press call with reporters. “They voiced concerns over the health risks that ethylene oxide poses and ask for swift action to reduce this dangerous chemical.”

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