The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said long-term exposure to ethylene oxide increases your risk for cancers of the white blood cells like non-Hodgkin lymphoma, myeloma, and lymphocytic leukemia (chronic or acute). It can also increase the risk for breast cancer in women.
It’s important to note that there are many other things that can increase your risk for contracting these cancers outside of just air pollution. The American Cancer Society has a lot of information on what the other risk factors are for those cancers.
What increases my risk of cancer and other health effects from ethylene oxide?
The closer you live to a source of ethylene oxide pollution, like Cook Group Inc., the more exposure you’ll have to ethylene oxide. But looking at the National Air Toxics Assessment data for 2014, the levels of ethylene oxide from Cook seem to drop off pretty quickly as you get outside of Ellettsville. The 2014 data shows most of the city of Ellettsville had a higher than average lifetime cancer risk, but the areas surrounding Ellettsville were closer to the national average.
While most parts of Ellettsville had a cancer risk of about 50 in a million, that risk was likely doubled for people who live closest to the Cook plant, according to EPA work files. The agency considers a cancer risk of 100 in a million or above an “unacceptable” risk level. Because we don’t have access to those work files, it’s hard to say exactly which homes near Cook had this higher exposure. The EPA looked at what are called "census blocks" close to the plant. Ted Palma, a retired EPA staffer from the Office of Air Quality, said census blocks each have about 12 to 15 homes.
Because ethylene oxide is a potent carcinogen, even small amounts of the chemical can be harmful. Back in the 1990s, Cook was putting significantly more ethylene oxide into the air than what it does today and what it did in the past 20 years. EPA data shows Cook emitted 4,330 pounds of ethylene oxide in 1996 — about six times more than it did in 2015, when Cook accidentally released more of the chemical than it intended.
All of this being said, it might be best to talk with someone at the EPA to find out about your own risk factors related to ethylene oxide.
Why isn’t there a clear cluster of people and employees in Ellettsville that have gotten sick from ethylene oxide?
Unfortunately, pinpointing what causes cancer is extremely difficult. As we mentioned earlier, there are several things that can increase your risk for these types of cancers — and even if you have all the risk factors, you still might not develop cancer. Breast cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, in particular, are common cancers across the country that can have many risk factors.
Cancer also isn’t usually something that develops quickly — it can take several years. That’s one of the reasons why the EPA’s National Air Toxics Assessment looks at cancer risk over a lifetime.
Cancer data isn’t perfect either. Cancer cases are often looked at at the county level. So if Ellettsville has a high number of people with cancer, it could be watered down if there are lower cancer rates in the rest of Monroe County. Even in Franklin, where dozens of children have been diagnosed with rare cancers, the Indiana Department of Health still hasn’t declared a cancer cluster.
We spoke with people in Ellettsville who had these types of cancers, but none of them felt comfortable being interviewed.
Can I get tested for ethylene oxide exposure?
If you get exposed to a lot of ethylene oxide in a short amount of time — such as someone who works with the chemical — there are ways to test your blood or breath for it. But the EPA said these tests aren’t sensitive enough to detect who has been exposed to low levels of ethylene oxide.
Former EPA officials and other experts we spoke to said the chemical also goes through the body quickly — so it would be difficult to find out if you were exposed in the past.
Did IPB News look into similar facilities in the area to see if they use ethylene oxide?
The short answer is no. Cook is the only facility in the area that has to report its ethylene oxide emissions to the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory — which is what was used to create the 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment showing the higher cancer risk in Ellettsville. Earlier this month, the EPA said it plans to make some other facilities that put ethylene oxide into the air report to the inventory. So hopefully if there are others, we’ll know soon.
What advice do experts have for residents?
Ted Palma said the EPA does these risk calculations to protect people who are the most vulnerable — so your actual risk may be lower than somebody that has other health conditions or risk factors for those cancers. He said the best thing to do is work with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, EPA Region 5, and Cook itself.
“They should be working with a community, trying to study the problem. Monitoring is a good way to figure out what's going on exactly in the local community. Monitor for several weeks, months, years — if you have the resources to do that — to see what's going on, work with the facility to try to reduce those emissions,” Palma said.
Palma said, fortunately, it seems like levels of ethylene oxide at the Cook plant are already going down. Though, as we reported, changes in the data make it difficult to understand the risk to residents today and in the past.
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Michelle Mabson is a staff scientist with the environmental group Earthjustice. She said she’s happy to answer what questions she can from Ellettsville residents.
Mabson also said it’s important that Ellettsville residents know they’re not alone — there are cities across the country that are investigating ethylene oxide in their communities and requesting meetings with the EPA. She said some people have even suggested making a coalition of communities concerned about ethylene oxide.
“There's a sort of national coalition brewing and forming around these issues around [ethylene oxide] and holding EPA accountable to not only the regulatory actions needed, but to the monitoring that's needed and the reduction of emissions that's necessary. So the more groups that are involved in that effort, the better in our opinion,” she said.
Mabson said people near ethylene oxide facilities can also comment on rules the EPA proposes regarding ethylene oxide.
This story has been updated with questions from our audience.
Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.