- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends reducing the use of ethylene oxide, a potentially carcinogenic chemical used in medical sterilization plants, by about 80% to protect workers.
- Long-term exposure to ethylene oxide can increase the risk of certain cancers. If exposed, people living or studying nearby, or workers in sterilization facilities, are at a significantly increased risk.
- The proposal includes standards for facilities to monitor and control the amount of ethylene oxide in the air and suggests providing protective gear for workers. Some workplaces should cease using the gas entirely.
- Reactions to the proposal have been mixed, with some experts expressing relief and satisfaction, while others, such as the president of the Advanced Medical Technology Association, believe the risk assessment exaggerates the threat to workers.
- There are concerns about potential delays in medical care and recovery of supply chains if facilities close due to the proposal’s implementation.
The Environmental Protection Agency is suggesting a significant decrease in the application of a particular chemical used for sterilizing medical equipment at sterilization facilities due to potential carcinogenic risks for workers.
The intention of the agency is to cut down emissions of the scentless gas, named ethylene oxide, by about 80% in 86 medical sterilization establishments.
“Our primary concern is the wellbeing and safety of individuals, and we stay dedicated to implementing appropriate measures supported by superior available science,” expressed the EPA Administrator.
“These recommendations are results of comprehensive discussions with communities across the nation and signify our close collaboration with vital federal associates. Collectively, they would notably reduce worker and community exposure to this harmful chemical.”
The Risks of Ethylene Oxide
Long-term exposure to the chemical either while working or living in close vicinity to a sterilizing plant could escalate the risk of certain types of cancer, such as lymphoma and breast cancer, explained the agency. People who live or attend schools where ethylene oxide is used could be at a significantly raised risk of cancer.
Serving as an effective pesticide and used in about half of all medical devices in the United States, ethylene oxide is crucial in sterilizing medical equipment such as pacemakers, syringes, catheters, and plastic surgical gowns.
Ethylene Oxide and Cancer Risk
The EPA stipulates an acceptable increase in lifetime cancer risk at 1 in 10,000. However, workers in medical sterilizing facilities face a significantly elevated risk with an estimated increase of one extra cancer case per 10 people exposed.
Under this proposal, sterilization facilities would be required to check for the presence of this antimicrobial chemical in the air and ensure functioning pollution controls are in place.
Additionally, the agency proposes requiring protective vapor masks for workers in areas with high ethylene oxide levels. Some work environments, including museums, are suggested to cease the use of the gas altogether.
Reactions to the Proposal
Reactions to these recommendations have been prompt and resolute.
A senior research analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists expressed relief and satisfaction at the introduction of standards based on updated, higher cancer risk values.
However, the proposal also suggests the need for ongoing monitoring at facility fence lines to reassure people in surrounding areas.
While the proposal is considered a step in the right direction, there is recognition of the need for further work to ensure the final rules provide maximum protection.
Oppositely, the president and CEO of the Advanced Medical Technology Association disagreed with the risk assessment, arguing it exaggerates the threats to workers. They pointed out the difficulty of sterilizing certain medical devices with alternative methods and raised concerns about potential delays in medical care should facilities close. They went as far as calling the 18 months permitted for installing technology to reduce emissions “far too short.”
Concerns have therefore been raised regarding the recovery period of supply chains and manufacturing post-pandemic.
Learn More about Ethylene Oxide
For more info on ethylene oxide, visit the National Cancer Institute’s website here.
SOURCE: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency