Three years after feds determined ethylene oxide was much more carcinogenic than previously thought and a half-dozen Kanawha County census tracts were at high risk for exposure, what exactly that means is unclear.
Two Union Carbide plants in Institute and South Charleston have emitted more than 868,000 pounds of the gas since 1987.
“The fact is, there’s still a lot to be determined,” said Ed Maguire, environmental advocate at the state Department of Environmental Protection. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Maguire spoke Thursday at a virtual town hall previewing a meeting the DEP and federal Environmental Protection Agency plan to hold on ethylene oxide via Zoom from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday. Maguire said it will be the first meeting of many.
“The challenge here is to get the full story, such as it’s currently known, out to the public,” he said.
An EPA air toxics assessment released in 2018 indicated Kanawha County’s total cancer risk at 366 in 1 million, 10th-highest in the country. But that hasn’t been the final word. The DEP subsequently asked the EPA for help getting localized data, suspecting the assessment overestimated the cancer risk at the Union Carbide facilities.
In 2019, the DEP got what acting department spokesman Terry Fletcher said were the most recent and accurate emissions data from the sites so regulators could perform their own dispersion modeling and get a more precise view of potential risks and minimization strategies.
A May EPA document the Gazette-Mail obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request said state air dispersion modeling showed “the risk for populated areas remain high.”
Records the Gazette-Mail additionally obtained from the state Department of Health and Human Resources and the EPA turned up analysis of cancer data that found an area of elevated ethylene oxide-related cancers downwind of the Union Carbide sites but cautioned the data were inconclusive.
“We need to get a handle on what’s going on,” Maguire said.
A shadow of uncertainty hangs over the issue partly because environmental regulators chose not to hold public meetings on the subject until now. A March 2020 EPA Office of Inspector General report urged the agency to inform people who live near facilities with significant emissions about their elevated estimated cancer risks.
The report noted agency plans for potential outreach in the first half of 2020. The EPA delayed those efforts because additional information had to be gathered and modeled.
EPA officials agreed to provide quarterly updates to former 15-year DEP Environmental Advocate Pam Nixon and others on ethylene oxide cancer risk assessment in Kanawha County, but she said that didn’t happen.
A DEP webpage published last month last month explains the flammable, colorless gas is used to make antifreeze, detergents and plastics and sterilize medical and dental equipment. Long-term exposure has been associated with increases in female breast and white blood cell cancers, including leukemia, Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Short-term exposure to high concentrations of ethylene oxide can cause nausea, fatigue, respiratory irritation and vomiting.
The webpage includes a link to a PowerPoint presentation state officials gave last month detailing DEP and EPA air modeling results and a proposal for air monitoring.
‘Share the data’
Union Carbide’s Institute and South Charleston facilities ranked 14th and 32nd respectively among the top 500 ethylene oxide emitters nationwide, DEP officials said during the Aug. 10 presentation at the agency’s Kanawha City headquarters.
Another South Charleston facility, Bayer MaterialScience — now Covestro — ranked 77th but showed greatly reduced ethylene oxide risk compared to the Union Carbide facilities.
Attendees at the presentation included Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper and county Manager Jennifer Herrald, West Virginia State University general counsel Alice R. Faucett and school Vice President and Chief of Staff Ericke Cage and representatives of Dow Chemical, Union Carbide’s parent, according to a meeting sign-in sheet.
People need data, Carper said.
“You can’t figure out anything by somebody just talking,” Carper said. “Share the data so that people can see it and not just come in and start talking for an hour and a half. Nobody can take that in.”
Faucett and Cage could not be reached for comment.
State health officials said during the presentation they found no elevated breast cancer, lymphoma or leukemia risk in Kanawha County.
But an analysis of Cancer Registry data that state epidemiologist Steven Blankenship shared with health officials showed elevated ethylene oxide-related cancers downwind of the Union Carbide facilities, according to internal documents obtained by the Gazette-Mail.
The analysis was based on a review of cancer data from 1993 — the first year of West Virginia Cancer Registry operations — to 2019.
Blankenship presented a map showing a cluster of census tracts east of the area of release with higher rates of ethylene oxide-related cancers. He also compared the percentage of cases by primary site by ZIP code for the areas of concern to the remainder of Kanawha County and found nothing stood out in the target area. But Blankenship said major flaws with that approach could skew the results.
“The point is that any estimate used will be wrong, and there is no way of knowing by how much,” Blankenship wrote. “The reliability of any rates calculated at the census tract level for these data cannot be defended.”
It was impossible to attribute those cancer clusters east of the area of release to ethylene oxide exposure, Blankenship concluded, citing potential exposures from sources known to exist in an area he acknowledged was “well-known as ‘Chemical Valley.’”
Nevertheless, Blankenship observed it was reasonable to expect people onsite could be the most vulnerable.
Blankenship recommended contacting the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which he wrote in a November 2019 email to former state health officer Cathy Slemp “might be willing to investigate cancer incidence among daily onsite workers likely to have relatively high levels of exposure.”
“Occupational study would definitely be a more direct way to look at exposure,” Slemp replied in an email.
State Health and Human Services spokeswoman Jessica Holstein has said the agency is not aware of any such study having been conducted.
Dow spokesman Kyle Bandlow declined to comment on whether the company would welcome another workplace study. He said in an emailed statement safety is Union Carbide’s top priority and the company follows OSHA and other regulatory guidelines to protect employees and communities.
He also cited studies indicating ethylene oxide did not increase risk of certain cancers for workers exposed to the chemical. One study detailed an absence of exposure-related effects for a group of Union Carbide male employees in the Kanawha Valley from 1940 to 1978.
That study, published in 1990, acknowledged the capacity for ethylene oxide to cause cell mutations and cancer and called the prediction of human risk to ethylene oxide “problematical.”
Other occupational studies have found an increased cancer risk for workers exposed to ethylene oxide.
Two federal class-action lawsuits filed by Kanawha County residents against Union Carbide in 2019 touted the National Air Toxics Assessment released the previous year, alleging the company’s ethylene oxide emissions exposed residents in Institute and South Charleston to hazardous levels of the chemical for decades.
The unresolved lawsuits contend the pollution prompted residents to turn to medical monitoring to mitigate increased cancer risk.
The Department of Health and Human Resources is reviewing cancer rates on a more localized level, according to the PowerPoint presentation.
Fenceline monitoring planned
The DEP is developing an air monitoring plan to include fenceline and onsite monitoring.
Fenceline monitoring is used to measure pollutants that cross a facility’s fenceline in real time.
Monitoring is expected to come from at least 30 Summa canisters to be run for a 24-hour period ideally set at breathing height (5 to 6 feet), according to Fletcher and last month’s presentation.
Summa canisters are stainless steel containers that collect organic compounds for air sampling.
Two slides in last month’s presentation show possible ethylene oxide sampling locations.
For the South Charleston site, those include the West Virginia Office of Laboratory Services on 11th Avenue, the South Charleston Public Library, the intersection of 33rd Street West and Blaine Boulevard and the intersection of 35th Street and 3rd Avenue.
For the Institute site, possible sampling locations include points around the Union Carbide plant near the Kanawha River and Route 25.
The DEP anticipates four sets of 24-hour data at each location, Fletcher said, adding each site and a project background site in Guthrie will have four 24-hour ethylene oxide samples.
The department plans to model actual emissions to compare with air monitoring data, according to Fletcher.
The agency plans to hold additional community meetings on ethylene oxide. Fletcher said the sampling results will be made public once they have been reviewed and quality assured.
New emitter reviews urged
The EPA Office of Inspector General issued a report in May calling on the agency to conduct new reviews of industrial sources that emit ethylene oxide to address elevated lifetime cancer risks impacting more than 464,000 people.
The agency watchdog urged the EPA to develop new national emission standards for ethylene oxide and a process to start timely reviews of emission sources when new risk information becomes available.
“The Agency has not incorporated new risk values for these pollutants into residual risk reviews for most source categories,” the inspector general said of ethylene oxide and chloroprene, a chemical the EPA has found is likely carcinogenic. “Therefore, the EPA cannot assure that current emission standards are protective of human health.”
The EPA responded to the inspector general’s findings by suggesting a residual risk review – a step in the agency’s regulatory process in which it assesses remaining health and environmental risks – was unnecessary.
“Without new RTRs [residual risk and technology reviews] or emission standards, the EPA may not be able to achieve environmental justice to protect the health of overburdened minority and low-income communities,” the inspector general’s report warned.
Environmental justice focus
Maguire said the EPA will address environmental justice during this week’s meeting.
The agency defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
Low-income and minority residents are disproportionately vulnerable to the elevated estimated cancer risk from ethylene oxide emissions at Union Carbide’s two Kanawha County facilities.
Of the nearly 26,000 people estimated to live within a three-mile radius of the Institute facility, according to the EPA, 13% are minorities, and annual incomes for more than 28% of the households within that radius are less than $25,000.
Of the more than 41,000 people estimated to live within a three-mile radius of the South Charleston facility, 20% are minorities and annual incomes are less than $25,000 for nearly 31% of households.
The percentages of minorities and low-income households near the two facilities exceed West Virginia’s statewide clips in those categories.
“They certainly will be integrated in all things that we do,” Maguire said of any EPA environmental justice-related initiatives to come.
Institute has traditionally had a high concentration of Blacks relative to most of the rest of West Virginia, dating to the founding of historically Black West Virginia State University in 1890.
Nixon, who is Black, turned to environmental science after experiencing the heavy chemical manufacturing presence in Institute, where she lived from 1978 to 1991.
She has called Institute an “environmental sacrifice zone,” noting the high concentration of Blacks in the unincorporated community who have been vulnerable to adverse environmental impacts from area plants.
Ethylene oxide emissions have declined sharply at Union Carbide’s Institute and South Charleston facilities since the 1980s and 1990s.
But the Institute facility released 9,164 pounds of ethylene oxide from 2015 through 2019, according to EPA data, more than most of the 25 high-priority facilities where the agency has estimated emissions significantly contribute to elevated estimated cancer risk.
With environmental regulators finally convening a public meeting on ethylene oxide, area residents finally might learn more about the chemical that has been here for generations but might only now be getting a proper introduction.
“It went from another sort of chemical you’ve gotta watch to number five on the hit parade,” Maguire said.