KINGSBURY, N.Y. (NEWS10) – A nationwide study was released last week marking places across the U.S. where industrial pollution rises above what’s considered safe. The locations marked on the map are numerous and span much of the country. But one is right in the North Country’s backyard.

The study, by investigative journalism publication ProPublica, maps out the emission of chemicals tied to cancer risk across the country, using five years of modeled data from the Environmental Protection Agency. It shows a visual representation of toxicity levels, and gives an exact idea of how high the pollutant levels are.

At the Sterigenics plant in Kingsbury, the reported number is an estimated 1 in 6,800 in excess lifetime cancer risk from industrial sources. In simpler terms, that’s about 1.5 times the EPA’s maximum acceptable risk level. The EPA sets the limit at 1 in 10,000.

The plant, at 84 Park Road near Floyd Bennett Memorial Airport in Queensbury, sterilizes medical equipment; the kind of materials that make up one of the area’s biggest industries. The chemical in question, that makes up the emissions in the ProPublica report, is ethylene oxide; the very chemical Sterigenics uses to sterilize equipment.

“Evidence in humans indicates that long-term exposure to ethylene oxide increases the risk of cancers of the white blood cells, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma, myeloma, and lymphocytic leukemia,” said the EPA, who classified ethylene oxide as a human carcinogen in 2016. “Studies also show that long-term exposure to ethylene oxide increases the risk of breast cancer in females.” 

It’s also highly explosive. Paul Hancock of the Clean Air Action Network of Glens Falls will tell you exactly how much so.

“They used it in Tora Bora, to kill terrorists,” Hancock said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “They dumped it into caves along the Afghan-Pakistan border, and then ignited it.”

Hancock and the Clean Air Action Network are no strangers to monitoring air quality in the surrounding Warren County region. Back in February, the organization released a study that scrutinized the state’s verdict behind a looming stat; that Warren County has the highest cancer rate in New York. The New York State Department of Health has stood by studies that blame smoking, drinking and obesity for those numbers, but the network called those claims into question, stating that key information had been missed.

When research was underway to build that case, Sterigenics became a key source of data. Hancock – who was not aware the Sterigenics plant even existed at the time – was seeking more data on industrial pollution levels, and looked at the Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators (RESI) model, which collects air emission data reported to the national Toxic Release Inventory. That model is the very same one ProPublica used in their research.

RESI doesn’t inventory exact amounts of chemicals sent into the air, but rather how much ground they cover, including how they spread and travel using winds. Hancock said that Warren County’s numbers didn’t appear hazardously high at first, when looking at the region’s RESI score as a whole. The county had a score of 56,000, but that can only be evaluated in relation to scores given to other entire counties. Then he zoomed in some more.

“They have another column, that lets you look at the RESI score within a 10-mile radius of any city in the state,” Hancock described. “Glens Falls being the most populated city in the county, I used it, put in an address right in the center of the city, and looked at the number. Now it’s up to 1.5 million. And the reason it jumped to 1.5 million was the Sterigenics facility.”

At the facility, ethylene oxide is pumped into a chamber that holds medical equipment, still packaged and in cardboard crates for shipping. As described by Hancock, the gas gets through the cardboard and quickly kills any bacteria. From there, half of it ends up being used as antifreeze. The rest is diluted using air and nitrogen, and trace amounts are oxidized around an open flame.

Hancock provided NEWS10 with a copy of the network’s primer on Sterigenics. In it, the network cites the plant as currently handling 180 tons of ethylene oxide annually, suggesting that a release as small as 1% to 5% of that gas could create fresh danger for residents of Kingsbury, Queensbury, Glens Falls, Fort Edward and more.

Sterigenics did not respond to NEWS10 requests seeking comment on Tuesday and Wednesday.

State weighs in

Ethylene oxide falls under the EPA’s National Emission Standard for Hazardous Air Pollutants, as well as the more strict New York State Prevention and Control of Air Contamination and Air Pollution regulation.

According to information from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the latter of those two regulations requires companies like Sterigenics to go through an air dispersion modeling process that would show whether the amount of hazardous material getting into the air is within limits deemed safe by the EPA.

“New York State regulations require conditions in the facility’s air permit to monitor the performance of the pollution control equipment to ensure compliance with permit limits,” a representative from the DEC said in an email to NEWS10 on Wednesday. “Sterigenics has an acid scrubber on the sterilizing chamber and a catalytic oxidizer to control emissions at the back vent and aeration room. Recent test results (2020 and 2021) at the facility demonstrate the pollution controls on the back vent, aeration room, and sterilizing chamber achieve emission reductions of greater than 99.8 percent.”

The DEC said that Sterigenics subjects all of the controls around ethylene oxide to regular tests, which DEC staff oversee. Some regulations are going through revisions, but according to the state, Sterigenics is recording emissions below what even those revisions are expected to require.

The statement to NEWS10 also called into question the reliability of five years of RESI data as a source in determining danger.

“The ProPublica map may not provide an accurate representation of risk from this facility because USEPA’s RESI model uses generic facility parameters to model TRI emissions from all facilities in the U.S.,” the EPA wrote.

What neighbors need to know

The Sterigenics plant lies just over the Kingsbury/Queensbury line, on a road populated by other plants and factories. It’s an area of industry, and from anywhere along that stretch of airport-adjacent road, it can be easy to think nothing else is nearby.

But that’s not true. Both Hudson Falls High School and Glens Falls’ Abraham Wing Elementary School are within around 3 radial miles of the facility. So are plenty of homes in the districts those schools are a part of.

“This is the first publicity that the company has had here, other than initial inquiries when they were first established,” Hancock said.

In some states, the company has had its share of publicity. Hancock recalled news from Illinois that a “Stop Sterigenics” community action group had pushed legislation to not allow ethylene oxide to be stored in amounts large enough to keep the company’s Willowbrook facility open any longer. The facility closed in 2019.

Although ethylene oxide remains the most efficient and effective means of sterilization that a company like Sterigenics could ask for, there are dangers even past the cancer risk. In 2004, an explosion at a California plant sent some employees to the hospital after engineers skipped a step in safely disposing of the gas.

“Half of the chamber was still full of gas when they turned on the oxidizer, and as soon as it hit the flames, it exploded,” Hancock said. “It traveled all the way back to the chamber and blew it apart; and not only that room, it destroyed the monitoring room.”

As for what can be done to better understand the potential threat, Hancock says the first step is to call for more public knowledge of how pollution into the air is being measured. That’s something he would love to see the state or federal government do, but says community action is just as important.

“We should demand it of them. We should go to our state representatives and our senators, and tell them to insist.”

Hancock said that 11 have indicated a desire for more oversight of Sterigenics. New York is one of them.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Sterigenics plant in Kingsbury uses 90,000 tons of ethylene oxide in a year, based on information from Paul Hancock of the Clean Air Action Network of Glens Falls. Hancock later reached out to correct that information. The article has been corrected to report that the facility uses around 180 tons in a year.