McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Months after South Texas environmentalists sued the Environmental Protection Agency citing lax oversight of cancer-causing emissions from a border commercial sterilizer plant, the federal agency on Tuesday announced proposed regulations that would greatly lower cancer risks.

The new EPA proposed rules would “strengthen and update Clean Air Act standards for ethylene oxide” and apply to dozens of commercial sterilizer plants nationwide, which emit the cancer-causing chemical, the agency said.

This includes the Midwest Sterilization Corporation plant in Laredo, Texas, which has some of the highest emissions of ethylene oxide, or EtO, in the nation.

EtO linked to Laredo schools

A risk-assessment study released by the EPA in July links EtO with “elevated cancer risk in the Laredo community” and directly linked those risks to the Midwest Sterilization Corp., plant, which sterilizes medical equipment, and is located in northwest Laredo near several elementary schools.

Several Laredo families have reported cancer clusters and cancer-related deaths that the Clean Air Laredo Coalition and environmental nonprofits link to EtO exposure, especially among children who attended elementary schools near the plant.

According to the EPA report, 10 schools in Laredo are among the highest in the nation with detected concentrations of ethylene oxide.

Laredo families hold photos of children affected from suspected ethylene oxide emissions during a rally on Sept. 20, 2022, in the South Texas border city. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

Stricter practices proposed

The Clean Air Act proposal announced Tuesday would require air pollution control technologies, practices, and procedures to be applied at 86 sterilizer facilities nationwide that are owned and operated by 46 companies, including Midwest Sterilization Corp., in Laredo.

“This is a huge day for Laredo and for other communities that are fighting this David vs Goliath issue,” Rio Grande International Study Center (RGISC) Executive Director Tricia Cortez told Border Report on Tuesday.

Tricia Cortez, of the Rio Grande International Study Center, speaks to supporters on Sept. 20, 2022, as they rallied in front of Laredo City Hall to demand stricter air quality measures to test for ethylene oxide. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

In December, RGISC sued the EPA along with Earthjustice and four other plaintiffs citing two decades of lax oversight of these plants.

Laredo City Councilwoman Vanessa Perez co-founded the Clean Air Laredo Coalition. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

“Today, residents of Laredo are a step closer to breathing cleaner air,” said Laredo City Council member Vanessa Perez, who co-founded the Clean Air Laredo Coalition, which has actively lobbied the EPA for stricter air quality monitoring and regulations of EtO.

Cortez says they want the EPA to put even stricter measures in place to “close the loopholes.” Namely, they want the agency to require fenceline monitoring of air quality by the industry, and they want tougher policies requiring a reduction in emissions of EtO from off-sight warehouses.

“These proposed rules are the first step to addressing elevated and unnecessary cancer risks that Laredo and other impacted communities face from facilities like Midwest Sterilization,” said Sheila Serna, RGISC climate science and policy director for the Laredo-based nonprofit.

Independent air monitoring project

Serna currently is overseeing an independent fenceline air monitoring project that RGISC and the Clean Air Laredo Coalition are starting this summer near the Midwest plant. Cortez says they have secured $200,000 in support from the City of Laredo, Webb County, and United Independent School District to launch the project, which requires very specialized air quality sensors to detect EtO emissions.

“We feel it’s important to see actual data of EtO being released into the air so close to businesses, neighborhoods and schools,” Cortez said.

But she said they don’t feel they should shoulder this burden, and they believe federal officials should step in.

“This will be the moment for people in our community who care deeply about protecting our children and families to demand that the EPA include fenceline air monitoring and warehouse emissions into the final rule,” Serna said. “That is absolutely necessary to safeguard our health and safety.”

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat whose hometown is Laredo, said he has been working with EPA officials on this issue.

“I also appreciate local advocates and community leaders for their important work on this matter. I look forward to finding a balanced measure that reduces Laredo’s cancer risk while safeguarding access to critical sterilized medical equipment,” Cuellar said in a statement.

Commercial sterilizers use EtO to sterilize devices that can’t be sterilized using steam or radiation, such as medical and dental equipment. According to the Food and Drug Administration, approximately 50% of sterile medical devices in the United States are sterilized with EtO – that’s about 20 billion devices each year. EtO is also used to fumigate some food products such as spices, EPA says.

The EPA is holding a national webinar on May 1 on EtO, which is expected to be followed by a 60-day public comment period. If so, the final rule should go into effect by the end of the year.

Pollution controls would be required to be in place within 18 months of the agency issuing a final rule. And all sterilizer plants must produce compliance reports within 60 days of the final rule.