KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A hazardous air pollutant affecting the New Tazewell community has been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency stemming from a medical supplies manufacturing facility, DeRoyal Industries.

The EPA says its scientists and analysts completed a risk assessment last year in order to understand the impact of ethylene oxide emissions or EtO from the DeRoyal Industries facility. According to EPA scientists, “the risk assessment identified elevated cancer risk in the New Tazewell community.”

Now, the EPA is working with local and state agencies as well as facilities and communities to reduce the risk. DeRoyal Industries manufactures and sterilizes medical equipment at the facility in New Tazewell, which opened in 1973.

What is EtO?

Ethylene oxide or EtO is an odorless, colorless, flammable gas. The EPA’s fact sheet on EtO states it is produced in large volumes at some chemical manufacturing facilities. In the United States, EtO is primarily used to make other chemicals that are used to make a range of products including antifreeze, textiles, plastics, detergents, and adhesives.

It is also used to sterilize devices that cannot be sterilized using steam or radiation, such as some medical and dental equipment.

The EPA also reports that EtO primarily enters the environment through the air and is the main way that people are exposed to the gas. Workers who work in places where EtO is used usually have a higher-than-average exposure, and people who live near facilities that release EtO to the outdoor air may also be exposed to it.

EtO is a human carcinogen or a cancer-causing chemical.

“Scientific evidence in humans indicates that exposure to EtO for many years increases the risk of cancers of the white blood cells, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma, myeloma, and lymphocytic leukemia,” the EPA reports. “Studies also show that long-term exposure to EtO increases the risk of breast cancer in women.”

“People who live near facilities that release EtO to the outdoor air may be exposed to EtO, depending on how much EtO is released and how close they live to the facility. The greatest cancer risk is for people who have lived near a facility releasing EtO into the air for their entire lifetime.”

Cancer in Tennessee

The Tennessee Department of Health’s Tennessee Cancer Registry Data shares reports on cancer from around the 95 counties within the state.

The most recent report available online that focuses on the state’s cancer registry (for years 2014-2018) indicates that Claiborne County falls within the Top 10 counties for all new cancer cases.

The Top 10 counties are listed in descending order by age-adjusted rate (rates in parentheses are displayed as cases per 100,000 population):

  • Carroll County (561.3)
  • Maury County (549.4)
  • Hardeman County (546.5)
  • Claiborne County (545.9)
  • Rhea County (543.2)
  • Benton County (541.6)
  • Meigs County (540.8)
  • Dickson County (527.3)
  • McNairy County (525.3)
  • Marshall County (522.8)

In the same report, the 10 most common cancer types diagnosed among Tennessee residents during the 2014-2018 period, in descending numbered order (counts in parentheses), were:

  • lung (30,887 cases)
  • female breast (25,944 cases)
  • prostate (22,991 cases)
  • colorectal (16,064 cases)
  • urinary bladder (8,117 cases)
  • melanoma of the skin (7,870 cases)
  • kidney and renal pelvis (7,832 cases)
  • non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (7,084 cases)
  • corpus and uterus (5,529 cases)
  • oropharyngeal (5,416 cases)

Next steps for New Tazewell community

While the risk information about the EtO emissions from DeRoyal Industries is as current as of late July 2022, more information is being collected by the EPA.

“We are continuing to collect and verify information about this facility and its emissions,” the EPA states on its information page. Community meetings hosted by the EPA were held in New Tazewell last fall. Those meeting recordings can be viewed here.

(MAP: Environmental Protection Agency)

Currently, the EPA is working with the state to reduce emissions at DeRoyal Industries; providing technical support to EPA air agency partners and reviewing controls on regulated equipment and processes that emit EtO “to determine whether additional air pollution controls are needed.”

Later, the EPA says it “will propose strengthening current regulations for Ethylene Oxide Commercial Sterilizers. EPA will consider risk as part of the proposed regulations.”

This is a developing story. Download the WATE 6 News app or sign up for our email alerts for updates.

 DeRoyal Industries sent WATE the following statement.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated.