EPA warns some Memphians about potential air quality danger

EPA announces dangerous chemicals at Memphis plant.
Published: Aug. 3, 2022 at 10:39 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The Environmental Protection Agency is warning hundreds of families in South Memphis about the quality of the air they breathe.

The EPA is looking closely at 23 commercial sterilization facilities around the country that use a certain chemical that can cause cancer, and one of those facilities is in the Bluff City.

Sterilization Services of Tennessee is located at 2396 Florida Street near Interstate 55 and South Third.

This company has been in operation since 1976, and according to local and federal authorities it currently meets air quality standards.

But the EPA is considering new, tougher air pollution control measures for the chemical used at the plant, ethylene oxide, and the agency will be reaching out to communities impacted.

sixty-seven-year-old Jacquelyn Scott has lived on a quaint little cul-de-sac on Dempster Avenue in South Memphis for more than 30 years.

”It’s a nice area. The neighbors look out for each other. We have a lot of senior people here. It’s a pretty good neighborhood and it’s quiet,” Scott said.

But that peace was disturbed Wednesday, August 3, after the EPA issued a warning about the chemical used at Sterilization Services of Tennessee, right around the corner from Scott’s house.

”Yes, I’m concerned. I am concerned because I’ve been living here since ‘86. That’s a long time to be breathing in whatever’s coming over,” she said, “considering what’s coming in from that side of Riverside Drive also.”

Scott said she worried more about the smoke stacks in the distance, the Valero Memphis Refinery, than the innocuous red brick building down the street.

Ethylene Oxide (EtO) is a colorless and flammable gas used to disinfect medical equipment.

It’s also used in the manufacturing of plastic bottles and antifreeze.

The EPA said “analysis indicates the air near facilities does not exceed short-term health benchmarks.

The concern is that a lifetime of exposure to EtO could lead to long-term health impacts if some of these facilities continue to emit at current levels.”

“The preliminary testing that we did showed no violation,” Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland told Action News 5, “The EPA has not done it yet. But what they’ve found is, this is a potential problem because they’ve seen it in other cities.”

Mayor Strickland ordered private testing of the air outside the plant.

Tioga Environmental Consultants found: “It does not appear that concentrations of ethylene oxide are above levels determined to be harmful by OSHA. ”The Shelby County Health Department said Sterilization Services of Tennessee has been part of SCHD’s Air Program since 1985, and “the facility is in compliance with the EPA’s current rules and regulations.”

Still, 292 homeowners nearby, including Jacquelyn Scott, will be getting letters from the EPA to raise awareness. ”I’m glad they’re doing that,” she said, “but I wonder how long the EPA knew it before they decided to address it?”

Sterilization Services of Tennessee did not comment after reaching out to them.

The EPA will host a community meeting in South Memphis on September 8.

To read the EPA’s announcement, click here: EPA Launches Community Engagement Efforts on New Ethylene Oxide Risk Information | US EPA

Here is the response from the City of Memphis: City of Memphis response to EPA ethylene oxide announcement - City of Memphis - General News, and here is the statement from Shelby County Health Department.

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