KINGSBURY, N.Y. (NEWS10) – An industrial facility making medical equipment became the subject of concern for some Kingsbury and Queensbury area residents last week, after the Environmental Protection Agency announced a meeting for those locals to find out whether the substances coming out of the building is safe. On Thursday, EPA staff held a meeting to share data on ethylene oxide, its emission rates, and its impact on the community.
Residents from Kingsbury and Queensbury gathered at Kingsbury Volunteer Hose Co. in Hudson Falls. The plant in question is Sterigenics, one of several industrial facilities operating on Park Road, near Floyd Bennett Memorial Airport. An employer of around 30 people, Sterigenics uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical devices. The gas is linked to lymphoid and blood cancers, and has also been used in warfare due to its high flammability.
Thursday’s meeting was all about one plant and one community, but the EPA put emphasis early on the national scale which led them to hone in there. Kingsbury Sterigenics is one of around 100 facilities nationwide that uses ethylene oxide. The FDA estimates that about 50% of all medical equipment in the U.S. is sterilized using the substance.
So, why bring it up now? Many of the health risks associated with ethylene oxide have been backed by science that has gained more stead within the EPA in recent years, starting with a new toxicity safety standard set in 2016. A renewed focus has since fallen on the chemical and how much of it is entering the air. Of the roughly 100 facilities known to use ethylene oxide, the EPA has marked 23 as displaying the highest risk to the health of their surrounding communities.
Each of those 23 communities has either had a meeting of its own, or is set to in the future. Kingsbury is not on that list, but showed enough pollution to spark a meeting anyway.
EPA Region 2 Air and Radiation Director Rick Ruvo said that the data shows a threat to lifelong exposure, first and foremost. Evidence does not support a connection between local exposure levels and acute or emergency health impacts. Consumer use of sterilized products, and contact between the chemical and soil or water, are also considered non-issues, as the substance doesn’t survive long once emitted. First and foremost, the concern surrounds those who have spent their lives around the plant, which has been in operation in Kingsbury since the 1990s.
Who’s at risk?
“When people are exposed over long periods of time, specifically, it can be associated with breast and blood cancer,” Ruvo said. “By long periods, we specifically mean when people breathe ethylene oxide over the course of a lifetime of 70 years.”
Different parts of that 70-year timeline show different amounts of vulnerability. Children are sensitive to the effects of ethylene oxide because their bodies are still growing. Similarly, employees working in close proximity to Sterigenics, or who handle ethylene oxide directly, may also be at risk.
The EPA calculates cancer risk based on the number of estimated cases in a population of 1,000,000 people. The organization’s maximum level of “accepted risk” sits around 100 cases per million (or 1 in 10,000) after which point the risk level is considered unacceptable, and a more direct route of intervention is sought.
Ruvo presented a map showing the location of the Sterigenics plant, surrounded by two rings of color. The innermost one, an orange blotch, represents an area that is within the plant’s effect zone, but where no residential properties are. Sterigenics operates on a completely industrial road, for example. Outside of that, a bigger, blue blotch shows the residential areas where a 100-per-million cancer risk is believed to exist. The area extends south along Dean Road to its intersection with Queensbury Avenue, and northeast to parts of Casey Road and County Line Road.
“As with any modeling analysis, there are some uncertainties in these estimates,” Ruvo said. “Uncertainty here comes from reasons such as the fact that the weather can change. There are day-to-day operations at the facility that can change.”
What happens next?
EPA permit writer and modeler Brian Marmo gave a lengthy explanation of how ethylene oxide is utilized at Sterigenics. Products go through a cycle of exposure, evacuation and air washing, after which they spend some time in an aeration chamber, for any leftover chemicals to wear off.
He also explained the two different kinds of emissions that can come out of a facility like Sterigenics. “Stack emissions” are those emitted from smokestacks (a broad term, as often smoke isn’t what’s coming from them). Substances coming from these stacks are controlled by wet scrubbers and catalytic oxidizers, and recent performance checks showed at least 99% efficiency across all of Sterigenics’ stacks.
Instead, EPA analysis shows that the second type – “fugitive emissions” – is the more likely source of problems. These emissions come not from stacks, but from the equipment that handles the offending chemicals. The EPA named ethylene oxide storage containers, dispensing pipes, vacuum pumps and handling as opportunities for the substance to get into the air.
There isn’t a lot that those living close to Sterigenics can do to lessen their exposure to the facility as it stands – save for moving away. The best solution is to change how things operate at the facility and reduce the amount of gas used. The EPA listed several goals for curbing the problems at hand. Sterigenics is currently up to renew its New York State DEC permit. The DEC operates a stricter emissions threshold, at a maximum of 10 per million.
Ruvo said that, while that process launches, the EPA will work with state partners in an effort to reduce emissions even sooner. The presentation was followed by a lengthy question session with residents. Those with questions of their own can reach the EPA at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Marmo directly at email@example.com, or by phone at (212) 637-4352.
Sterigenics was featured in 2021 in a study by publication ProPublica featuring emissions tied to cancer risks across the U.S.