By Alfredo Santana
VERNON — The South Coast Air Quality Management District has filed an administrative order against Sterigenics US to correct activities that caused dangerous releases of the carcinogen ethylene oxide or to cease those operations.
Filed on July 15, the abatement order calls for Sterigenics, a medical sterilizing company with two industrial plants about 500 feet away from homes in Maywood, to approve a corrective plan to reduce emissions or shut down activities that cause pollution.
The legal filing is the latest chapter of a probe the air quality regulatory agency launched on April 22, when it began monitoring Sterigenics’ airborne emissions near its equipment at the sites on 4900 S. Gifford Ave., and 4801 E. 50th St.
Data compiled through July 2 indicates that an average level of ethylene oxide reached 21.5 parts per billion (ppb), way above state regulations that set its outdoor presence at a maximum of 3.18 ppb.
Ethylene oxide, a colorless gas used to sterilize medical devices like catheters, respiratory tubes, surgical trays, gowns and others, poses a “significant cancer risk … to off-site workers, endangering public health,” at 3.18 ppb, according to the air quality agency.
Presence within factory premises of the flammable chemical at similar levels spikes the odds for long-term exposed workers to develop cancer to more than 600 in a million, the agency said.
However, levels at residential areas and at a school 1,700 feet away from the plants are within background levels.
“Exposure to EtO over a number of years increases the risk of certain cancers and facilities must ensure that their operations don’t negatively impact public health,” said Wayne Nastri, AQMD executive officer. “The intent of this order is to reduce emissions as quickly and effectively as possible.”
The agency alleged Sterigenics violated the nuisance Rule 402, and breached California’s Health and Safety Code section 41700, both banning industrial emissions of air pollutants that endanger the health or safety of the public.
On June 7, Sterigenics was declared a “potentially high risk level facility,” which triggered an order to submit an “early action reduction plan” in 90 days to identify and implement measures to reduce health hazards quickly.
Sterigenics is now required to report to the agency any infrastructural changes or modification of operations to sequester all ethylene oxide, and to unfold a program to lower cancer risks below background levels in 180 days.
The filing indicates that when an industrial site is designated a potentially high-risk facility, it must reduce cancer risks to 25 in a million as fast as feasible, but not later than two years from approval of the risk reduction plan.
In the document, the petitioner indicated that the ethylene oxide releases affected at least five off-site workers, and as many as 30 to 40, endangering “the health of a considerable number of persons.”
South Coast AQMD attorney Brian Tomasovic wrote that the order for abatement is not expected to result in closing or elimination of a lawful business.
But “if it does result in such closer or elimination, it would not be without a corresponding benefit in reducing air contaminants,” Tomasovic said in the petition.
The filing acknowledged that Sterigenics has cooperated with the district in the process to discover the equipment at fault and to correct it.
In response, a Sterigenics spokesperson said the company is confident “in the continued safety of its employees and the surrounding community,” and that they continue to cooperate with the South Coast AQMD to identify and implement additional protection measures to further enhance the already safe operations.
“In this petition, SCAQMD reiterated that its findings indicate the facility is not a risk to nearby residents,” the Sterigenics spokeperson said. “We are committed to continuing our record of longstanding compliance with regulatory requirements and safely fulfilling our critical role in safeguarding public health through the sterilization of over 45 million essential medical devices and supplies at our Vernon facility each year.”
The Sterigenics’ saga began on March 31, when an unannounced visit from AQMD inspectors picked up odors near disinfectant equipment. Air samples were taken outside the buildings, resulting in elevated ethylene oxide levels.
Such hazardous emissions prompted the agency to install three air monitors near the company’s premises, and one on Fruitland Avenue, across the street from houses.
Site monitor number 1, stationed at an outdoor storage lot abutting an active railroad track behind the building at Gifford Street, has invariably reported worrisome toxic levels above the permitted threshold since the probe started April 22.
Site monitor 2 was discontinued after May 5 due to safe air meters.
Air quality at site monitor 3, located at the curbside near the corner of Gifford Street and the railroad track, has fluctuated above and below the threshold level starting on May 14.
In contrast, from May 11 to July 1, the number 4 monitor located at Fruitland Avenue, has consistently measured safe ethylene oxide levels between 0.1 and 0.2 ppb.
The initial investigation focused on a potentially damaged wet scrubber at the 50th Street facility, and spread to installations that may still contribute to the chemical escape, activating a procedure to identify ways to capture emissions.
Furthermore, the probe resulted in the issuance of three notices of violation in April and May that ranged from failures to operate the air pollution control system in accordance with the permit, to not maintaining the equipment in good condition and for lack of pressure gauges and a pH meter in the enclosed installations.
Following the filing, Fourth District Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn tweeted that the legal petition was needed to clamp down on toxic fumes affecting humans.
“Finally, we have some action from the SCAQMD on the ongoing health threat posed by the Sterigenics plant in Vernon,” Hahn said. “[The AQMD has] issued an order of abatement, requiring [Sterigenics] to lower their emissions of ethylene oxide, a known carcinogen,” Hahn said. “This is a step in the right direction, but I know the abatement process can be long, so shutting down this facility until they can lower their emissions and come into compliance would be safer for the workers and residents alike.”
Sterigenics is one of three medical companies owned by Sotera Health, a public corporation with headquarters in Broadview Heights, Ohio. The other two properties are Nelson Labs, an outsourcer for global microbiological and chemistry tests, and Nordion, a supplier of Cobalt-60.
On July 19, Sotera’s stock traded in the Nasdaq exchange at $18.82. Shares have lost a third of their value since last November, when they reached a height of $27.32 apiece.