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South Memphis residents at higher risk for cancer due to toxins released from local warehouse | group calls out health department for lack of action

Memphis Community Against Pollution (MCAP) is calling out Shelby County Health Department for failing to act after learning that South Memphis residents are at risk.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — If you’re a South Memphis resident, you may be heavily exposed to ethylene oxide (EtO), a colorless, odorless cancer-causing toxin being emitted by the Sterilization Services of Tennessee plant, increasing your risk of developing cancer, The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said.

Now six months since EPA released a health warning for South Memphis residents after a risk assessment was completed, The Memphis Community Against Pollution (MCAP) is calling out Shelby County Health Department for failing to provide an update to the community.

To read MCAP's call for action and petition, click here.

The concerns about the plant

The Sterilization Services of Tennessee plant sterilizes medical equipment and other materials. The facility is in the South Memphis area, located at 2396 Florida St., near neighborhoods, businesses, and schools.

According to a risk assessment completed by EPA in July, 2022, the sterilization facility releases high levels of EtO into the air, causing higher risk for cancers like lymphoma, leukemia and even breast cancer for people living in the South Memphis community.

MCAP's demands for health department

MCAP is a black-led group that works to pass legislations stopping projects that negatively affect the environment and the people in it. The group is being represented by Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC).

“Nobody should be forced to live next door to an industrial facility that recklessly emits toxic, cancer-causing pollution,” Amanda Garcia, SELC Tennessee Office Director, said. “The Shelby County Health Officer not only can act, but must act to protect South Memphis families from the dangerous ethylene oxide pollution coming from the Sterilization Services of Tennessee plant.”

MCAP is now demanding the Shelby County Health Department's office director to force the sterilization facility to reduce the emission of cancer-causing toxins in the South Memphis area or to close the facility and discontinue its operations completely.

“Since (the risk assessment), The Shelby County Health Department has yet to update the impacted community members about the status of Sterilization Services of Tennessee or engage with us in a meaningful way,” KeShaun Pearson, MCAP Board President and Co-founder, said. “South Memphis residents deserve to breathe clean air, and we demand immediate action from the Shelby County health Department.”

In a letter sent to the Shelby County Health Officer on Wednesday, Feb. 8 on behalf of MCAP, MCAP said the health department's “refusal” to end EtO air pollution in the area causes health and safety risks for Memphians living nearby, stating that immediate action is needed to protect those living in the community.

Shelby County Health Department response

ABC24 reached out to the Shelby County Health Department to address the concerns. The department released the following: 

"Shelby County Health Department (SCHD) is working closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Tennessee Department of Health to educate and inform the residents near the Sterilization Services of Tennessee facility located at 2396 Florida Street about ethylene oxide (EtO) health concerns. SCHD derives its legal authority in air pollution matters from Shelby County Government, the State of Tennessee, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

SCHD has the legal authority to enforce existing EPA regulations under the Air Quality Act (1967)/Clean Air Act. Sterilization Services of Tennessee meets the current federal, state, and local legal standards for EtO emissions. The Clean Air Act does not currently allow Sterilization Services of Tennessee to be held to legal standards higher than existing ones. Nevertheless, the EPA is updating Clean Air Act regulations to reduce allowable EtO emissions to better protect communities like South Memphis. As required by law, SCHD will ensure that any revised federal regulations regarding EtO are enforced as quickly as possible in Shelby County.

Input from the public is an important part of the federal rulemaking process. SCHD is working closely with EPA to ensure the concerns of Shelby County residents are taken into consideration in the revised regulations.

To better serve its residents, SCHD is also conducting epidemiological studies to assess the risk EtO poses to the public.

  • SCHD has requested a Public Health Assessment (PHA) and a Health Consultation (HC) from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to identify health risks related the usage of Ethylene Oxide (EtO) and other chemicals in the area surrounding the Sterilization Services facility.
  • SCHD has also requested that the Tennessee Department of Health’s Cancer Registry conduct a cancer incidence study of the area around the Sterilization Services facility. That study will analyze cancer rates among residents in the affected area compared to those in another part of Shelby County. Once that study is complete, the results will be released to the public.
  • SCHD will convene meetings with residents to ensure they understand any health risks and available health screening and treatment resources.
  • On March 8, 2023, SCHD will present an update to the Shelby County Commission on the status of any new EPA regulations and any follow-up actions that may be taken.

“The people of South Memphis face inequitable health, social, and environmental conditions in comparison to many other parts of Shelby County,” said Shelby County Health Department Director Dr. Michelle Taylor. “Achieving environmental justice is a part of Shelby County Health Department’s mission to promote, protect and improve the health of ALL in Shelby County.”

What the EPA says

Here is a map provided by EPA showing the areas most affected by the EtO toxins the facility releases into the air. 

EPA said the map shows the risk and possibility of developing lifetime cancer. The areas in blue estimate that 100 in every one million people exposed to EtO for 24-hours a day after 70 years will develop cancer from consistent exposure.

The EPA said its risk assessment was based on a worst-case scenario, with the assumption that someone is living in an area where the most EtO toxins are released into the air, making it a high-risk area, and assuming that a person is staying in that area for 24 hours a day continuously for 70 years.

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