By Alfredo Santana
VERNON — Sterigenics, a company that sterilizes medical devices, has been banned from doing business with Los Angeles County until it stops outdoor emissions of possibly carcinogenic pollution at its two Vernon facilities.
The company is being investigated for releasing dangerous levels of ethylene oxide.
The county motion arrives after a recent designation by the South Coast Air Quality Management District that Sterigenics is a “potentially high risk level facility” and must decrease toxic emissions from operations and issue reports on health risks.
Banning Sterigenics from contracts with county-owned hospitals and clinics would not immediately impact the company, because it currently does not provide services or sells goods to any county facility.
However, the motion pressures the company to resolve the pollution issue soon, following an ongoing campaign from Supervisor Janice Hahn that calls for the plant’s temporary closure despite a probe being carried out by the AQMD into the matter.
Approved 5-0 by the county Board of Supervisors, Hahn’s motion cites the notice of violation issued in May by the AQMD against Sterigenics, and for running elevated levels of the cancer-causing ethylene oxide, beyond the state’s safety threshold.
The latest AQMD inspection indicates that on May 29, ethylene oxide emissions measured 20.7 parts per billion, whereas on May 27 emissions were at 14.3 parts per billion at an open storage lot abutting railroad tracks, still in violation of the 3.18 ppb permitted by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.
“Sterigenics is emitting dangerous levels of a cancer-causing chemical and is threatening the lives of workers,” said Hahn. “I continue to urge the SCAQMD to shut down this plant until they lower these emissions, but we can exert our own pressure. Until they no longer pose a threat to workers and the community, this company is not going to get valuable Los Angeles County contracts.”
Hahn began to gather signatures through emails from Maywood residents asking them to support the site’s shutdown until the facility’s equipment tasked with capturing the harmful chemical complies with state regulations.
Hahn’s motion claims that outdoor levels of ethylene oxide at the industrial compound are 6.5 times higher than those considered not harmful for company workers.
Temporary exposure to ethylene oxide, used to kill germs from catheters, surgery kits, IV sets, stents and more, can cause headaches, weakness, nausea, eye irritation, respiratory issues and skin burns.
Long-term contact has been attributed to cause lymphoid and breast cancer and increase reproductive disorders.
“As stewards of county fiscal resources, it is the prerogative of this board to direct our county resources to be spent with companies that comply with applicable laws and regulations and do not put the health of workers or community members at risk,” Hahn’s motion said.
The controversy engulfing Sterigenics took off following a series of impromptu on-site inspections that gauged hazardous levels of the sterilizing chemical streaming outdoors due to failures on the air control system.
Initial inspections were conducted from March 22 through May 5, with readings ranging from 18 to 103 parts per billion of ethylene oxide.
The probe logged additional troublesome issues, such as equipment missing pressure gauges in control devices and a lack of a pH meter to test water acidity, both required in the operating permit.
The investigation focused on a wet scrubber, or a device that captures toxic airborne particles inside a chamber mixed with water as part of industrial exhaust streams, thus halting their release to the atmosphere.
The onerous designation requires Sterigenics to speed its process to identify the faulty equipment and correct it to reduce health risks, plus provide the state agency with an “early action reduction plan” within 90 days describing the remedial steps.
Issued on June 8, the labeling calls for Sterigenics to notify the regulatory agency of procedural changes, equipment modifications and operational cutbacks to lower emissions.
Also, the company was tasked with evaluating its air toxic emissions, ordered to run a health risk assessment, and turn in a final plan to decrease cancer risks below background levels within 180 days.
The AQMD also canceled air monitoring at a site located on 50th Street due to safe readings recorded from March 24 to May 5.
A spokesperson from Sotera Health LCC, Sterigenics’ parent company, said in a statement that the Vernon facilities already operate in compliance with AQMD and federal regulations.
“Sterigenics has successfully completed remediation efforts to address the previously announced SCAQMD notice of violation, and is continuing to cooperate with SCAQMD and take all appropriate actions in response to the recent facility designation. Sterigenics takes safety very seriously,” the statement said.
The Vernon plants provide sterilization to more than 45 million “essential medical devices and supplies each year” and they are distributed to nearly 100 health care manufacturers, including dozens in the Los Angeles area and local hospital, the spokesperson said.
Although Hahn and Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles have voiced concerns for the impact the flammable and colorless gas on Maywood households found 500 feet away from the site, air tests show safe ethylene oxide background levels from 0.02 to 0.08 parts per billion.
Ian MacMillan, assistant deputy executive officer for planning, rule developing and implementation with the AQMD, advised Kevin Wagner, vice president of environmental health and safety with Sterigenics US in the notice letter to remedy the contamination problems soon.
“Given the significant levels of ethylene oxide emitted by your facility, we strongly encourage you to take all necessary steps to reduce these emissions as quickly as possible,” MacMillan wrote.
The AQMD cited Rule 1402 as the law associated with the reduction of toxic air contaminants for biomedical companies engaged in sterilizing medical equipment.