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Kingsbury facility cited in study of cancer risk factors

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Kingsbury facility cited in study of cancer risk factors

The Sterigenics plant in Kingsbury is seen last week. The company, which sterilizes medical equipment, was cited in a study as increasing the risk factor for cancer because of the type of chemical it uses. 

A Kingsbury plant that sterilizes medical equipment has been identified as a potential factor in the increased risk of cancer in this area.

The journalism website ProPublica analyzed five years of Environmental Protection Agency modeling that assesses risk factors. The Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators takes into account emissions data, weather models and facility information and estimates concentrations in the air around industrial facilities, according to the website.

The study does not specifically tie cancer rates to specific facilities, but notes an increased risk.

The Glens Falls area has an increased cancer risk factor of 1 in 6,800 — about 1.5 times EPA’s acceptable risk level — because of industrial emissions and ProPublica cites this facility specifically.

The report is available at https://projects.propublica.org/toxmap/.

Paul Hancock, a member of Clean Air Action Network of Glens Falls, has conducted research on the facility as part of the organization’s investigation into why Warren County has the highest combined incidences of cancer in the state.

Of the 57 counties outside New York City, Warren County ranked 17th from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, first for myeloma, 15th for leukemia and 10th for breast cancer.

A 2019 study by the state Department of Health concluded that the main reason was smoking.

“They didn’t really look at the industrial facilities for potential other risks of cancer. They never mentioned Sterigenics. We didn’t know it existed,” Hancock said.

The facility is located at 84 Park Road near other industrial facilities. The plant sterilizes medical equipment in packages using large chambers that they flood with ethylene oxide, which kills bacteria and viruses.

Tracy Frisch, founder and former chairwoman of the Clean Air Action Network of Glens Falls, said the gas is then pumped out of the chamber and then moved to a scrubber and half of it is transformed into ethylene glycol — which is antifreeze.

The rest is diluted by pumping air and nitrogen into the chamber, according to Frisch. The remaining trace amounts of gas are removed by opening the chamber door slightly.

Only then can workers enter the chamber and remove the packages.

In 2004, workers at a Sterigenics plant in California skipped the step of diluting the gas, causing an explosion.

“It’s more explosive than rocket fuel,” she said.

Containers of this gas were dumped into caves in Tora Bora to kill terrorists, she added.

Hancock said in 2016, ethyl oxide was designated as a carcinogen.

“EPA announced that there was evidence in humans that indicate that long-term exposure to the ethylene oxide increases the risk to certain kinds of cancer,” he said.

These cancers include myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and breast cancer.

The chemical is eliminated from the body very quickly, according to Hancock. However, it has the capability to mutate DNA, and children are much more likely than adults to have a change in their DNA from being exposed to ethylene oxide.

“How well they protect the local residents from fugitive emissions is still a question that we don’t have the answer to,” Hancock said.

Eleven states have appealed to the EPA to increase regulations on the use of ethylene oxide, according to Hancock.

Residents were successful in closing a Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook, Illinois, an affluent suburb about 30 minutes southwest of Chicago in 2019 after lawsuits were filed against the company over release of ethylene oxide from the facility.

Hancock said Sterigenics is located in this area because of the medical device manufacturers that are present including BD and AngioDynamics.

This is the most efficient and effective way of sterilizing this type of equipment. However, the Food & Drug Administration said on its website that the federal government is trying to phase out the use of this chemical in facilities.

Frisch said the plant handled 180 tons of ethylene oxide and even if 1% to 5% were released, it is would put the public at risk.

“This is like this cancer risk just sitting in the middle of the area that nobody’s aware of,” she said.

Frisch said there should be pressure put on local officials to require monitoring of the emissions.

“No one is going to know if it’s in the air because no one’s checking,” she said.

Clean Air Action Network of Glens Falls plan to lobby the EPA, state Department of Environmental Conservation and state Department of Health and elected officials to demand that Sterigenics invest in necessary equipment upgrades to make the plant safer.

Company responds

Sterigenics said in a statement that the ProPublica report uses average estimates from 2014 to 2018 that does not reflect the current status of the facility. The plant operates safely, officials said.

“Ethylene oxide (EO) exists naturally in the air around us and comes from a variety of sources, including the human body, among other natural and everyday sources. EO has been an essential life-saving sterilization method used for decades to ensure the safety and sterility of medical devices and supplies throughout the health care industry,” the statement said.

The company went on to say that the facility is one of many that use EO to sterilize over 20 billion medical products, including those that have been used to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Sterigenics consistently complies with applicable laws and regulations governing the use of EO in our operations, and has continuously made investments including the use of state-of-the-art systems to control permitted emissions of EO and protect the communities in which we operate,” the statement said.

State responds

The state Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Health provided information in response to questions from The Post-Star about ethylene oxide sterilizers.

The New York State Prevention and Control of Air Contamination and Air Pollution requires facilities to conduct air dispersion modeling to demonstrate that off-site air concentrations are below the state’s acceptable levels.

Sterigenics has an acid scrubber in the sterilizing chamber and a catalytic oxidizer to control emissions. Tests results at the facility in 2020 and 2021 showed that the pollution controls at the back vent, aeration room and sterilizing room reduced emissions by greater than 99.8%, according to state officials.

These tests are conducted on a regular basis and overseen by DEC personnel.

The EPA is working on updates to lower the permitted threshold of emissions, but DEC said that Sterigenics’ emissions are below what the new standards are expected to be.

DEC said the state is not currently proposing to phase out use of this chemical. Officials said no chemical or process has been found to be more effective at sterilizing hospital equipment to prevent infections from bacteria and viruses than ethylene oxide sterilization at this time.

Michael Goot covers politics, crime and courts, Warren County, education and business. Reach him at 518-742-3320 or mgoot@poststar.com.

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