West Virginia environmental regulators will hold a meeting Thursday on the results of air monitoring it conducted last year to measure ethylene oxide, a carcinogen emitted at chemical facilities in the Kanawha Valley.
The Department of Environmental Protection released a report on the results last week recommending that all four known ethylene oxide-emitting facilities in Institute and South Charleston agree to more stringent monitoring of the chemical.
But state regulators have been quieter regarding an internal recommendation a state epidemiologist made three years ago for a workplace study to support findings indicating an area of elevated ethylene oxide-related cancers downwind of the release area.
Steven Blankenship, an epidemiologist for the Department of Human Health and Resources’ Bureau of Public Health made the recommendation for “a workplace study of some type” in January 2020, according to an internal document obtained by the Gazette-Mail via Freedom of Information Act request and confirmation from the DHHR.
The document noted a cluster of higher ethylene oxide-related cancer rates east of areas of release, citing State Cancer Registry data from 1993, the first year of Cancer Registry operations, to 2019.
“It is still reasonable to expect that those who are on-site could receive the highest levels of exposure and be most vulnerable to any potential effects,” stated the unsigned document the DHHR later attributed to Blankenship.
Contacting the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, known as NIOSH, “to request a specific worker study” was listed as an action item for the DHHR’s Bureau of Public Health in a December 2019 email from Renu Chakrabarty, Department of Environmental Protection Division of Air Quality air monitoring, laboratory and air toxics assistant director, to DHHR staff. DEP staff were copied on the email.
In a November 2019 email to other DHHR staff, including then-Bureau of Public Health Commissioner Cathy Slemp, Blankenship said he had recommended contacting the NIOSH, adding the institute might be willing to investigate cancer incidence among daily onsite workers likely to have relatively high exposure levels.
DHHR spokeswoman Allison Adler said in an email Wednesday evening the agency contacted the NIOSH to discuss a workplace study.
Adler said it was noted in discussions with the NIOSH that roughly 500 workers are employed at ethylene oxide-emitting facilities in Institute and South Charleston, less than the roughly 1,700 she said were employed at the facilities during a previous NIOSH study in 1979.
Adler said the decrease in workers substantially lowers “the statistical power of any study that might be conducted.”
“In other words, with so few people in the study, it is unlikely that a statistically significant difference could be found even if a difference exists,” Adler said.
Adler reported that the NIOSH has concluded a study with so few participants would be of little scientific value, so a new workplace study will not be initiated.
The NIOSH did not respond to a request for comment.
Union Carbide plants in Institute and South Charleston have emitted more than 434 tons of ethylene oxide since 1987, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data.
A spokesman for Union Carbide did not respond to a request for comment.
In 2021, a spokesman for Union Carbide parent company Dow Chemical Company cited past studies indicating that ethylene oxide did not increase risk of certain cancers for workers exposed to the chemical, including one that detailed an absence of exposure-related effects for a group of Union Carbide male employees in the Kanawha Valley from 1940 to 1978.
But 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 on the job.
Exposure to ethylene oxide has been associated with increases in incidence of female breast cancer, leukemia, Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
In the January 2020 document attributed to Blankenship, he 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.
It was not possible to attribute those cancer clusters east of the area of release to ethylene oxide exposure, Blankenship concluded, citing many potential exposures from sources known to exist in what he acknowledged was an area “well-known as ‘Chemical Valley.’”
Blankenship dismissed environmental health concerns regarding ethylene oxide at an August meeting the DEP held in North Charleston on ethylene oxide, reporting a lack of cancer clusters for ethylene oxide-related cancers around what state air modeling identified as the highest-risk locations in Institute and South Charleston.
Blankenship noted the estimated lifetime risk of death from choking on food — 1 in 2,745, per the National Safety Council — is greater than the 1 in 1 million excess cancer risk associated with exposure to a particular carcinogen that federal agencies often reference.
“Worry about chewing your food properly,” Blankenship told the crowd of about three dozen.
Ethylene oxide is a flammable, colorless gas used to make antifreeze, detergents and plastics, and to sterilize medical and dental equipment.
The DEP conducted four 24-hour rounds of air monitoring across nine sites throughout the Kanawha Valley from January through April last year.
The agency is expected to go over the monitoring results at its meeting Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Wilson Union Hall on the campus of West Virginia State University in Institute.
Known sources of ethylene oxide in the study area are Union Carbide and Covestro operations at 437 MacCorkle Ave. Southwest in South Charleston, and Union Carbide and Specialty Products US LLC operations at Altivia’s industrial park in Institute.