At the Monumental Baptist Church in South Memphis, local residents lined up to tell federal officials how cancer possibly linked to their environment had taken away loved ones, friends and family.
Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency traveled to town to inform residents of the possible deadly consequences of living near Tennessee Sterilization Services, a facility that has been in the neighborhood since 1976.
The company uses ethylene oxide (EtO) to sterilize items as disparate as medical equipment and spices. It operates under necessary federal and local permits and no protective measures are required to prevent EtO from escaping into the nearby community, including those who worked nearby and children who attended nearby schools.
But in recent years, EPA officials have learned that EtO is more dangerous than they previously knew. Breathing in the chemical may have increased the risk of cancer and other health risks, with the risk increasing due to proximity.
Children are also more susceptible, said Daniel Blackman, an EPA administrator responsible for overseeing four states, including Tennessee.
Controlled emissions are regulated by equipment designed to prevent EtO from escaping the facility, but fugitive emissions – or emissions that escape the facility – cause the most risk and are not covered by current regulations.
“The risk in Memphis is high and we are very concerned about that risk,” Blackman said.
EPA officials also noted how little residents could do to minimize their risk beyond leaving their homes in South Memphis. There are no air filters that could protect them inside or outside their home, and spending more time indoors does not reduce their risk.
Caroline Freeman (rt) with EPA, speaks with residents Jerome and LaJuana Webber. The EPA held public meetings at a church in Memphis on Tuesday, October 18, 2022. The meeting was to inform residents of a high cancer risk for those living in South Memphis near Tn Sterilization Services. located on Flordia Street. There are more than 100 commercial disinfection sites in the United States, of which 23 in various locations have been linked to levels of cancer risk from ethylene oxide emissions. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht/Tennessee Lookout)
EPA toxicologist Rashidra Walker talks to residents during a town hall meeting at a church in Memphis on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022. The meeting was to inform residents of a high cancer risk for those living in South Memphis near the Sterilization Services of Tn. located on Flordia Street. There are more than 100 commercial disinfection sites in the United States, of which 23 in various locations have been linked to levels of cancer risk from ethylene oxide emissions. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht/Tennessee Lookout)
EPA’s Rick Gilliam talks to resident Vera Holmes about environmental issues in the Mallory Heights neighborhood. The EPA held public meetings at a church in Memphis on Tuesday, October 18, 2022. The meeting was to inform residents of a high cancer risk for those living in South Memphis near Tn Sterilization Services. located on Florida Street. There are more than 100 commercial disinfection sites in the United States, of which 23 in various locations have been linked to levels of cancer risk from ethylene oxide emissions. (Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht/Tennessee Lookout)
“The best solution to reduce this risk is to reduce the amount of currently unregulated EtO, fugitive emissions coming out of this facility,” said Caroline Freeman, EPA Air and Radiation Division Director.
“In fact, spending less time near the facility would actually reduce your risk,” she added.
On Tuesday evening, EPA officials responded to residents’ concerns. Shelby County Health Department Director Dr. Michelle Taylor was also present.
As soon as the presentation was over, residents of the affected neighborhoods – Riverside and Mallory Heights – left their pews to line up and speak directly to EPA officials.
Maxine Thomas, a South Memphis resident, walked over to the microphone, carefully balancing her cane as she asked how residents should protect themselves.
“What are we going to do? Just die? she asked. “I want to live long. I am 83 years old.
Another resident told officials she was born and raised near Tennessee Sterilization Services and lived close enough to throw a rock at the building from her yard. Although she later moved on, she later developed breast cancer and several of her neighbors also got cancer.
“Some of us have lost our parents. I lost my father,” Carolyn Lanton said.
Due to cancer risks, EPA officials and the Shelby County Health Department are investigating the number of cancer cases linked to area residents. The department is also working to create resources for residents who cannot afford to get tested for cancer, Taylor said.
“We are already working with all of our hospital partners in in-depth conversations about how many resources we can bring there. We know there are a lot of people in the community who are uninsured or underinsured, please remember that,” Taylor said. “So we have a lot of people, and it has a lot to do with what’s happening at the state level, the fact that we’re not a Medicaid expander state. Don’t get me started on that.
The EPA also plans to propose new regulations targeting EtO emissions in the coming months, with a final proposal expected in 2023. Once the regulations are established, the Clean Air Act gives facilities two to three years to complete. comply with the requirements and the EPA has encouraged facilities to work towards reducing current emission levels.
We die disproportionately, and we are told to wait. We cannot afford to wait. It is that we are sacrificed for the polluters. We are sacrificed for their profits, and we are sacrificed because people in positions of power don’t care about our lives.
But residents questioned why they were still being asked to take the risk of living near a cancer-causing facility that employed just eight workers, they noted. Others complained that EPA officials offered few solutions.
“We have to do something now. We can’t keep dying for some (profits),” resident Adrian Ward said.
“We only need a solution to the problem. Ask them to move somewhere less populated,” he added.
The problem is, according to EPA officials, Tennessee’s sterilization services haven’t violated any regulations and have all the necessary permits. Although the facility is one of 100 nationwide, the Memphis facility is one of 23 at higher risk – and no law has prevented the facility from settling in a predominantly black community in low income, a concept that many community activists have described as environmental. racism.
“We are dying disproportionately, and what we’re being told is to wait. We can’t afford to wait,” said Justin J. Pearson, co-founder of Memphis Community Against Pollution. It’s that we’re sacrificed for the polluters, we’re sacrificed for their profits, and we’re sacrificed because people in positions of power don’t care about our lives.
“Sterilization services must disappear,” he said.
“It’s easy for you to say what you said, and I agree with most of the reasons people are here. I think the challenge is that that’s not how this process works,” Blackman retorted, adding that communities needed to challenge local zoning laws in order to get the facility moving.
Pearson then spoke directly to the EPA panel about their efforts to educate the community about the risks they inherited simply by living in South Memphis.
“You haven’t educated this community enough about what’s going on,” he said, adding that MCAP volunteers had sent out thousands of flyers and text messages.
The community can’t wait for new regulations, Pearson said, and MCAP plans to continue its advocacy efforts to enact faster changes.
“This is the move we’re talking about, and we need you to go back to Atlanta and do your job well and know you have Memphis to back you up,” he said.
“But we don’t have time to wait,” Pearson said.
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