Health Department must use emergency powers to protect South Memphis communities from toxic ethylene oxide pollution
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — On Tuesday, the Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of Memphis Community Against Pollution, sent a letter to the Shelby County Health Officer, urging the official to use his emergency powers to force Sterilization Services of Tennessee to reduce toxic emissions or discontinue operations altogether.
Since the 1970s, Sterilization Services of Tennessee has been pumping ethylene oxide into the air in South Memphis. Ethylene oxide (EtO) is a toxic gas that causes increased risks for cancers, including lymphoma, leukemia, and breast cancer. Because it is colorless and odorless, many people living near facilities emitting ethylene oxide don’t know when they are being exposed to it. The Environmental Protection Agency has found that EtO is 60 times more toxic than previously understood and, last October, came to Memphis to share air pollution modeling showing that South Memphis communities near the facility are likely being exposed to elevated health risks.
The Sterilization Services of Tennessee plant sits near homes, schools, and churches, putting the people who live and work in these predominantly Black communities at risk. The facility also continues a long legacy of environmental injustice in South Memphis, which is overburdened with air and water pollution.
“It has been six months since the Environmental Protection Agency released updated information on the dangers of ethylene oxide to humans and almost four months since the EPA held public meetings in Memphis. Since then, 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,” MCAP Board President and Co-founder KeShaun Pearson said. “South Memphis residents deserve to breathe clean air, and we demand immediate action from the Shelby County Health Department.”
Memphis city ordinances direct the Shelby County Health Officer to act when air pollution “creates an emergency requiring immediate action to protect human health or safety.” Ethylene oxide pollution from the Sterilization Services of Tennessee facility – and the company’s continued refusal to act – creates significant health and safety risks for nearby communities, and therefore the officer must use his emergency powers to better protect communities near the plant.
“Nobody should be forced to live next door to an industrial facility that recklessly emits toxic, cancer-causing pollution,” SELC Tennessee Office Director Amanda Garcia 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.”
Along with EPA’s recent announcement that the Sterilization Services of Tennessee plant creates “elevated” cancer risks for nearby residents, a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists also highlights the dangers of the facility. Together, this new information further demonstrates that this is an emergency requiring immediate local action.
While Sterilization Services has voluntarily reduced EtO emissions at its facilities in other states, it has continually refused to take action to reduce the amount of ethylene oxide released from its South Memphis plant. Last month, the Memphis City Council unanimously passed a resolution urging the company to reduce ethylene oxide emissions.