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Toxic Gas Adds to a Long History of Pollution in Southwest Memphis – KFF Health News

MEMPHIS, Tennessee – For many years, Rose Sims had no idea what was going on inside an ordinary brick building on Florida Street, a few miles from her ordinary one-story home in the southwestern part of the city.

Like other residents, they got an unwanted surprise in October 2022 at a public forum hosted by the Environmental Protection Agency at the historic Monumental Baptist Church, known for its role in the civil rights movement. The EPA informed the predominantly black community that Sterilization Services of Tennessee – which began operations in a brick building in the 1970s – was emitting unacceptably high levels of ethylene oxide, a toxic gas commonly used in medical devices. Used to disinfect.

Airborne emissions of colorless gas may increase risk of certain medical conditions, including breast cancer. Sims, who is 59 and black, said she developed breast cancer in 2019 despite having no family history of it, and she suspects ethylene oxide was a contributing factor.

“I was often out. I was in good health. “All of a sudden, I got breast cancer,” she said.

Local advocates say the emissions are part of a pattern of environmental racism. The term is often used when areas populated primarily by members of racial and ethnic minorities and low-socioeconomic backgrounds, such as Southwest Memphis, are burdened with a disproportionate amount of health hazards.

Malini Ranganathan, an urban geographer at American University in Washington, DC, said drivers of environmental racism include the promise of tax breaks for industry to locate a facility in an overwhelmingly minority community. The cheap cost of land is also a factor, as is the concept of NIMBY – or “not in my backyard” – in which electricity brokers move potential polluters to poorer areas of cities.

A manager at Sterilization Services’ corporate office in Richmond, Virginia declined to answer questions from KFF Health News. An attorney with the law firm Leitner, Williams, Dooley & Neapolitan, which represents the company, also declined to comment. Sterilization Services said in a legal filing seeking to dismiss the ethylene oxide-related lawsuit that the use of the gas, which sterilizes about half of the medical devices in the U.S., is highly regulated to ensure public safety.

Besides southwest Memphis, there are about two dozen locations, mostly small towns — from Athens, Texas to Groveland, Florida and Ardmore, Oklahoma — where the EPA said in 2022 that plants sterilizing medical devices could potentially be built. emit gas at unusually high levels. An individual’s risk of developing cancer is increasing.

The pollution problem is so severe in southwest Memphis that even though Sterilization Services plans to close up shop by April 30, local community leaders are hesitant to celebrate. In a letter to a local congressman last year, the company said it had always complied with federal, state and local regulations. It said the reason for its closure was a problem with the renewal of the building lease.

But many residents see it as just a small victory in a larger battle over environmental protection in the neighborhood.

“It’s still a pile of pollution,” Yolonda Spinks of the environmental advocacy organization Memphis Community Against Pollution said of the many threats facing the community.

The air in this part of the city has long been considered dangerous. One oil refinery A steady plume of white smoke emerges. there is a coal plant Ash leaked into the ground And groundwater. The coal plant was replaced by a natural gas power plant, and is now operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, which provides electricity for local power companies. There are plans to build a new gas plant There. There is a constant flow of heavy trucks on the nearby highways and roads. Other transportation sources of air pollution include barge traffic at Memphis International Airport and on the nearby Mississippi River.

Plumes of smoke rise from an oil refinery near Martin Luther King, Jr. Riverside Park in southwest Memphis, Tennessee. An advocate for the community says the predominantly black neighborhood has become a “pollution cesspool” due to the presence of heavy industry and associated air pollutants. (Andy Miller for KFF Health News)

A woman wearing a black t-shirt and glasses sitting on a red sofa and looking at the camera

Memphis resident Rose Sims lives a few miles away from a brick building that has been used for decades by Sterilization Services of Tennessee. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the facility emitted unacceptably high levels of ethylene oxide, a gas that is a known carcinogen. Sims says she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019, despite having no family history of it. (Andy Miller for KFF Health News)

Lead contamination is also a concern, he said, not only in drinking water but also in soil from shuttered lead smelters. chunrong jiaProfessor of Environmental Health at the University of Memphis. Nearly all of the heavy industry in Shelby County – and the associated pollutants – are located in southwest Memphis, Zia said.

Sources of pollution are often “conglomerated in particular communities,” said Daria Minovy, a senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit that advocates for environmental justice. The group has found that when it comes to sterilizing facilities that emit ethylene oxide, areas largely populated by Black, Hispanic, low-income and non-English speaking people are disproportionately exposed.

The four sites that the EPA has labeled high-risk are in low-income areas of Puerto Rico. Seven sterilizer plants operate in that US territory.

EPA, in response to public concerns and a deeper scientific understanding of the dangers of ethylene oxide, Recently issued rules The agency said this would significantly reduce toxic gas emissions from sterilizing facilities.

Keyshawn Pearson, who was born and raised in South Memphis and has been active in fighting environmental threats, said he is disappointed that companies with dangerous emissions are allowed to create a “toxic soup” in minority communities .

In the area where the sterilization plant is located, 87% of residents are people of color, and, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center, life expectancy there is about 10 years lower than the county and state average. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the population within 5 miles of a sterilizer plant is mostly low-income.

Pearson was part of the Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, a group formed in 2020 to stop a crude oil pipeline that would pass through Boxtown, a neighborhood founded by freed slaves and freedmen after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.

The campaign, which received public support from former Vice President Al Gore and actress-activist Jane Fonda, succeeded. After the threat of ethylene oxide came to light in 2022, the group changed the last word in its name from “pipeline” to “pollution”.

In addition to breast and lymphoid cancer, the gas has been linked to tumors of the brain, lung, connective tissue, uterus, and mammary glands in animal studies.

Last year, with the help of the Southern Environmental Law Center, a South Memphis community group urged the Shelby County Health Department to declare the ethylene oxide situation a public health emergency and shut down the sterilizing plant. But the health department said the company complied with its existing air permit and EPA rules and regulations.

Health department spokeswoman Joan Carr said Shelby County enforces EPA regulations to ensure that companies comply with the federal Clean Air Act and that the agency has five sites around the county to measure levels of other pollutants. There are air monitoring stations.

A man wearing a suit and tie smiling for a photo
Keyshawn Pearson was born and raised in South Memphis. He has been active in fighting environmental health threats in the southwestern part of the city, including Boxtown, a neighborhood founded by freed slaves and freedmen after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. (Andy Miller for KFF Health News)

When the county and the Tennessee Department of Health conducted a cancer cluster study in 2023, the agencies found no evidence of clustering of higher rates of leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, or breast or colon cancer near the facility. “Hot and cold spots” of breast cancer were found, but the study said it could not conclude that the clusters were linked by convenience.

Scientists have criticized the study’s methodology, saying it did not follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for designing cancer cluster investigations.

Meanwhile, several people have sued the sterilizing company, claiming their health has been affected by ethylene oxide emissions. In the lawsuit seeking class-action status, 21-year-old Regina Kendrick said she was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 6. Chemotherapy and radiation have stunted her growth, destroyed her hair follicles, and prevented her from going through puberty, said her mother, Robbie Kendrick.

In response to proposed stricter EPA regulations, meanwhile, the Tennessee Attorney General helped 19 other state AGs urge the agency to “stop or postpone regulating the use of EtO by commercial sterilizers.”

Sims said she’s glad her neighborhood will have one less thing to worry about once the sterilization services are gone. But his feelings regarding the bandh remain calm.

“Hopefully they don’t move to another residential area,” he said.

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