By Alfredo Santana
VERNON — A hearing board has rejected a plan between Sterigenics, the local company that sterilizes medical equipment with ethylene oxide, and the South Coast Air Quality Management District to scale up sequestering of the carcinogen gas after a member pushed for stiffer control measures.
Board member and former AQMD engineer Mohan Balagopalan solicited slashing caps for emissions gauged in a single day from 63.6 to 36.6 parts per billion and for two consecutive days from 31.8 to 18.3 ppb.
A mechanism for immediate operation shutdowns would remain in place until air sampling returned to suggested emissions.
The release levels would be temporary until May 2024 while Sterigenics unfolds more efficient permanent control systems to comply with state and federal emission limits.
“This is curtailing it, in a sense putting pressure on the facility to do those interim measures … to reduce exposure to the community,” Balagopalan said.
The document indicates that air monitoring recorded at the plant located at 4900 S. Giffords Ave. averaged 18.3 ppb of ethylene oxide between April 22 and July 25, posing a significant cancer risk.
Using methodology and health values from the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, SCAQMD staff estimated that offsite workers from two Sterigenics plants to be at 575 per million, assuming the current levels persisted in 25 years of exposure.
Balagopalan also requested inserting a clause that calls for updates in writing every 45 days to monitor measures to mitigate high emissions, such as installation of plastic sheets of 10 millimeters thick and strip curtains in enclosed areas from chamber corridors to aeration rooms.
Other capturing and safety measures would include directing gases to control equipment if feasible, adding dry bed systems and signage with large type letter warning personnel in areas with known ethylene oxide emissions.
Sterigenics attorney Maya Lopez Grasse agreed to the 45-day written reports but objected to the emissions threshold amendment, noting that first she would have to consult with her client.
She acknowledged the district’s findings that hypothetically put at risk of contracting cancer workers with long-exposure to the colorless gas eight hours a day five days a week for 25 years, but pushed back arguing that there was zero evidence to suggest cancer risks are reduced at the proposed new levels.
The lawyer said the terms in the drafted agreement give consideration to the company’s rendering of vital services for the medical industry.
“[Sterigenics] needs the flexibility to conduct these important operations. The numbers we selected reflect the negotiation through months,” Lopez Grasse said. “That is what has been stipulated, and we cannot change these.”
Before the hearing, the SCAQMD filed an abatement order asking Sterigenics to devise a plan workable for both parties to capture dangerous ethylene oxide releases that would be approved by the hearing board.
Hearing board member Micah Ali criticized both parties for an agreement that lacked feedback from impacted residents and workers, and said he could not support it.
“Some would say that’s not germane to the overall engagement before us,” Ali said. “Well, as a public representative it is to me. If the community believes there are health risks, I believe that information should be provided to us.”
Board member Allan Bernstein said nobody had reported cases of sick people due to spikes of ethylene oxide emissions and he proposed leaving the plan as it was, but adding the 45-day report clause.
Board chair Cynthia Verdugo said that both Sterigenics and the SCAQMD should reach out to Maywood residents and workers at neighboring industries to educate them about the real effects of current ethylene oxide emission levels and the role disinfecting medical devices play in the health of county residents, despite calls from politicians to close the facilities.
After the board voted down the plan 4-1, SCAQMD attorney Brian Tomasovic said that the decision makes the process of reducing ethylene oxide emissions more difficult in that Sterigenics may raise a legal defense on the issue of where is a violation, harming the goal to reduce overall air pollution in Southern California.
“All of that is in play now,” Tomasovic said. “It will be difficult. We hoped for a different result, particularly with other EtO facilities. We were hoping that this would be a good model, especially to encourage those facilities to come forward and work with us.”
County Supervisor Janice Hahn said she was glad the hearing board chose not to approve the deal, and tweeted the plan would have allowed Sterigenics to continue business as usual and even increase ethylene oxide emissions.
“That said, doing nothing is unacceptable,” Hahn tweeted. “Sterigenics is still emitting dangerous levels of carcinogenic EtO. I am urging the @SouthCoast AQMD Hearing Board to reconvene as quickly as possible and shut Sterigenics down until they can lower their emissions to safe levels.”
Following the board’s ruling, Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, who represents the 53rd Assembly District that includes Vernon and Maywood, said in a press release that Sterigenics will continue to let pollutants escape until a new plan is adopted.
“We need to ensure that Sterigenics will not pollute our communities so we can protect our communities and workers,” Santiago said. “Our communities and especially our children deserve clean air. I urge the SCAQMD hearing board to reconvene as soon as possible and have the Sterigenics facility stop poisoning our communities with cancer-causing chemicals. We will not stop until our communities are safe and free of polluted air.”
The Sterigenics facilities sterilizes more than 45 million units of medical equipment a year, including catheters, surgical kits, IV sets and more.
Sterigenics released a statement saying the company is disappointed that the stipulated proposed order with the SCAQMD was not approved by the hearing board, and that the facilities already had begun implementing the control enhancements.
“We will not let recent developments delay implementation of these measures and we will continue to work under the oversight of SCAQMD to reduce emissions further,” the statement said. “Accordingly, Sterigenics will voluntarily proceed with implementing the immediate, interim, and long-term emissions control enhancements on the timeline outlined in the proposed order.”
The company also set up a web page at www.sterigenicsvernon.com, with information about the process of sterilizing medical devices, how manufactures and hospitals benefit from it and the creation of 40 “well-paying industrial jobs in the area.”
The next board hearing is set for Aug. 30.