Ethylene oxide emissions from Lakewood plant could pose long-term risks to residents, says EPA. What does that mean?

Terumo BCT's sterilization facility in Lakewood. Aug. 5, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Terumo BCT’s sterilization facility in Lakewood. Aug. 5, 2022.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is warning residents in Lakewood that long-term exposure to a toxic chemical used by a local commercial sterilizing company could significantly increase their lifetime risk of cancer.

The alert to residents comes as the federal agency re-evaluates the potential danger of ethylene oxide, a toxic gas released into the air by Terumo BCT Sterilization Service, Inc., which manufactures products that collect, separate and process blood and other cells.

Ethylene oxide emissions from the Terumo BCT plant in Lakewood are below state and federal pollution limits, but new computer modeling suggests “elevated risks” for residents who live near it and 22 similar sites across the country, EPA officials said. 

Those models suggest constant exposure to ethylene oxide emissions from Terumo BCT, even if they’re under current state and federal limits, could lead to an additional 1 to 6 cancer cases among 10,000 people. EPA officials said the agency will propose additional regulations this year to reduce ethylene oxide risks posed by commercial sterilizers.

In a statement, a representative for Terumo BCT said the company is “extremely diligent” in its use of the toxic compound and stressed that the EPA modeling showed potential cancer risks, not confirmed increases of cancer in the community.

“Terumo BCT supports EPA’s nationwide review of [ethylene oxide] use and emission levels and its efforts to engage the community on new risk information. We will continue to provide data and the expertise of our team to assist EPA in its review.”

What is ethylene oxide?

Ethylene oxide is a sweet-smelling, colorless gas that was first manufactured on an industrial scale in 1914. It serves as a raw material for many industrial processes and is used directly as a fungicide, insecticide and a sterilizing compound for medical equipment, according to a history compiled by the American Chemical Society, which notes many of the same characteristics that make it useful also make it dangerous.

The EPA in 2016 classified ethylene oxide as a human carcinogen, a move that triggered it and state environmental regulators to re-examine facilities that used the compound. When the EPA released an updated version of its nationwide assessment on health risks from air pollutants in 2018, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment launched a more thorough investigation of operations at Terumo BCT Sterilization Services.

Computer modeling at the time predicted cancer risks near the plant were above “acceptable” federal levels, said Leah Schleifer, a spokesperson for the state agency. The follow-up investigation “found no evidence that there currently is more cancer in the communities around Terumo BCT than in surrounding areas,” Schleifer said.

The company installed additional controls at the Lakewood plant in 2018, which significantly reduced ethylene oxide emissions, state environmental regulators found. Jessi Done, the senior plant manager for sterilization at the Lakewood site, said the company has also installed another piece of emissions control technology called a catalytic oxidizer that will come online in 2023 and is expected to further reduce emissions.

Research has linked ethylene oxide exposure to lymphoma, leukemia and breast cancer. A 2021 analysis by ProPublica showed roughly a quarter of the nearly 100 commercial sterilizers the EPA regulates have exposed nearby residents to unacceptable cancer risks and found ethylene oxide contributes more to cancer risk than any other toxic air pollutant released by American industry.

CPR News spoke to several long-time residents who live in neighborhoods near Terumo BCT, all of whom declined to give their names, who said they weren’t aware of the plant’s emissions or any of the state or federal government’s efforts to inform the nearby community of potential health risks.

The EPA will hold a community meeting and webinar about ethylene oxide emissions from Terumo BCT on Oct. 25.