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Activists demanding action to stop potentially harmful chemicals in South Memphis

The EPA found the presence of ethylene oxide in the South Memphis facility 60 times more toxic than previously understood.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Sterilization Services of Tennessee is a source of ire for many residents South Memphis.  It uses a chemical called ethylene oxide to clean the medical equipment in the building. The compound is colorless and odorless and can have detrimental effects on someone’s health if they are exposed to it for too long.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it has been present in the air around the building since the 1970’s. According to the Union for Concerned Scientists, it has led to 82% of cancer in the South Memphis area.

“This might be one of the reasons why our neighborhood is going down,” said Linda Peete, who grew up in South Memphis. “My mom died of cancer, several people in the area died of cancer, several classmates died from cancer my age. So it’s fearful because you don’t know why.”

The Memphis Community Against Pollution (MCAP) has spoken out against the company for the issues it has caused for homes, churches and schools in the predominantly black community. In its most recent letter, it was calling for the Shelby County health officer to take urgent action.

The EPA found the presence of ethylene oxide 60 times more toxic than previously understood. In a statement, MCAP said Memphis city ordinances direct the Shelby County health officer to act when the air pollution “creates an emergency requiring immediate action to protect human health or safety.”

“We’re asking the Shelby County health officer to utilize his emergency power to have the facility cease operations or stop their use of ethylene oxide,” said Angela Johnson, MCAP Member.

On Feb. 9, the Shelby County Health Department said it is currently conducting several studies to determine the current impacts ethylene oxide is having on the community. The department adds it plans to release an update to Shelby County Commissioners on March 8.

However, It has still been around half a year since the EPA brought the plant to Memphis’ attention. Those living nearby are calling all levels of government to act quicker, and provide more updates on the next steps.

“We hired an environmentalist to do our own study, they measured the levels, I think they were within normal, but certainly a cause of concern, and then we were working with the federal government to move as quickly as they can,” says Mayor Jim Strickland, “We’ve  talked to congressman Cohen about trying to get quicker action.”

People like Linda Peete, however, are saying this is not good enough, and would rather see the building shut down or moved somewhere else entirely.

“We want you to hear us and be on our side to have it removed, let us know that you’ll listen to us,” says Peete.

Last month, the Memphis City Council passed a resolution in support of the South Memphis community, urging the Sterilization Services of Tennessee to reduce emissions. MCAP says the company has already voluntarily reduced emissions in other states, but has refused to do the same in South Memphis.

“We need to find a way to hold them accountable, and if our elected officials can stand behind us in doing so, that will be exactly what we need, because this will be a fight that will take true people power,” says Johnson.

This continues to be an ongoing issue for South Memphis, but MCAP is saying the fight is far from over.  MCAP will be part of a discussion at 10:30 AM on February 11th at the South Branch Library, where community members will discuss this and other issues.

ABC24 reached out to the Sterilization Services of Tennessee, but was told no one was available to comment at that time.

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