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Ethylene Oxide

Ethylene oxide (abbreviated as EtO), is a synthetic chemical widely used in chemical manufacturing to produce other chemicals that are then used in consumer products, and for sterilization. It can cause cancer and other serious health effects. Newer studies show that ethylene oxide is a much more potent carcinogen than scientists previously thought.

Most of the EtO released comes from chemical manufacturing and from sterilization of surgical and medical instruments and supplies. According to the 2016 EPA Toxics Release Inventory, there are 118 facilities in the US that collectively released over 320,000 pounds of ethylene oxide to the air. These facilities are located in 31 states and Puerto Rico, although many are clustered in a few states, including Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia.

Based on data from the 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment (the most recent available), at least 288,000 people live in 58 ethylene oxide “hot spots” with cancer risk from EtO at least 100 times greater than the level that triggers action under the Clean Air Act (and in many communities 300 times greater or more).  Many of these communities are much more low-income and/or people of color than the US as a whole.

EPA has so far largely failed to act on the high cancer risk caused by ethylene oxide in many places. Many affected communities are now organizing to protect their health.

Ethylene oxide is only one harmful chemical that many Environmental Justice communities are exposed to, even though most federal, state, and local agencies don't take these cumulative exposures into account. You can learn more about cumulative exposures, and solutions, through our Life at the Fenceline report and maps.

What's Happening Now?

The Trump Administration is trying to undercut the science-based health standard for ethylene oxide through an unrelated rulemaking. That public comment deadline is April 26, 2019. Comments can be submitted at See below for resources to develop comments.

Members of Congress have introduced the Expanding Transparency Of Information and Safeguarding Toxics (ETO IS Toxic) Act, which would modernize and strengthen toxic air pollution monitoring and chemical hazard assessment programs.

Sign up here to get updates about ethylene oxide and other issues, or contact EJHA Organizer Stephanie Herron at SHerron[at] 

Learn More About How Ethylene Oxide is Impacting Communities

EJHA Fact Sheet on Ethylene Oxide

A Tale of Two Toxic Cities: The EPA’s Bungled Response to an Air Pollution Crisis Exposes a Toxic Racial Divide



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