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The Terumo BCT medical sterilization facility in Lakewood. (via Google Street View, click for full map)
The Terumo BCT medical sterilization facility in Lakewood. (via Google Street View, click for full map)

Lakewood residents are at elevated cancer danger from releases of toxic ethylene oxide by the Terumo BCT medical equipment sterilization plant in their neighborhood, according to a new assessment from the Environmental Protection Agency targeting the riskiest sites in the nation. 

The EPA said Wednesday it is making a new push to educate neighbors “on specific facilities where lifetime risk levels are the highest,” and said some areas close to the Lakewood facility risk six extra cases of cancer for every 10,000 people exposed for 70 years.

“This is a worst-case scenario that assumes a person stays in the highest risk area 24 hours a day continuously for 70 years,” the EPA said. “EPA takes this approach because we want to be protective of the most exposed and most vulnerable individuals from risk associated with ethylene oxide emissions from this facility.” The EPA said it wants neighbors to be able to “make informed decisions.” 

Terumo said in a statement that emissions from the Lakewood facility are “far below the limits” set by the EPA and state.

“Our emissions were already below our permitted limits in 2018, but we still took voluntary steps to further reduce emissions,” the company statement said. “In 2023, we will further reduce emissions by bringing online a new $22 million system that will convert” ethylene oxide emissions to water vapor and carbon dioxide. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency map of potential elevated cancer risks around the Terumo medical sterilization facility in Lakewood, Colo. The EPA is making a new push to warn and educate neighbors of sterilization plants around the nation because of the dangers of ethylene oxide emissions from such facilities. The map shows the potential for higher cancer rates than would be expected, based on updated emissions data from Terumo. (U.S. EPA)

The EPA’s updated online pages about Terumo list the facility at 11308 W. Collins Ave. in Lakewood. The updated data includes a map of potential impacts on Lakewood neighborhoods. 

“State and federal regulators have identified no increased cancer rates in neighborhoods surrounding Terumo BCT’s Lakewood facility,” the Terumo statement said.

That is confirmed by the state’s information page on its reviews of Terumo operations, where the state said it did not find evidence of above-normal cancer cases in the area up through 2017 epidemiological data.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment officials said the EPA reassessment of Terumo is in line with what they already know from recent years of testing and equipment improvements at the facility. 

“We take this seriously, and we welcome EPA’s guidance and have already been working with Terumo to reduce their emissions,” state spokeswoman Leah Schleifer said. 

Lakewood officials said they supported the new information push by EPA. 

“We appreciate all the work that EPA and state health officials are doing to provide up-to-date information to Lakewood residents and to inform those residents about what is occurring,” Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul said, by email. “We will support those agencies as best we can in connecting to residents and encouraging them to participate to get any of their concerns or questions addressed.”

Environmental advocates said Terumo does not deserve a clean bill from public health officials, and that the risks of future ethylene oxide releases are real, even if the state has not found past evidence of an increase in cancer. 

“EPA’s new report again confirms that Terumo’s emissions of ethylene oxide pose a real and serious risk to communities,” said Rebecca Curry, Colorado policy counsel for Earthjustice. The group is encouraged the EPA will update regulations on commercial sterilizers like Terumo, Curry said. 

But Curry also mentioned passage of an airborne toxins monitoring and regulation program by the state legislature this year, under House Bill 1244, co-sponsored Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Democrat from Lakewood. His district includes Terumo, and Kennedy wants more oversight of it and other companies using toxic chemicals. 

The law “clarified that Colorado has clear authority to regulate toxics more stringently than the EPA. Our state should act swiftly to address Terumo’s toxic pollution and protect public health,” Curry said. Business interests had urged Polis to veto the law after it passed the legislature. 

The state’s air sampling and review after Terumo installed new equipment in 2018 showed the company still posed a risk, Curry said. CDPHE recommended more monitoring and additional controls. “Residents and off-site workers could be exposed to elevated levels of ethylene oxide in air that are associated with an increased cancer risk. The elevated cancer risks could harm the health of these populations,” CDPHE said.  

Kennedy said he appreciates the EPA’s update and effort to inform residents, but added the new air toxins law gives Colorado more power to verify improvement. 

“What is different about the state law is it will actually require monitoring of ambient air levels to see if the problem has been truly addressed,” Kennedy said. If a monitor required under the law ends up getting placed near Terumo, and shows risks are lower, “then great,” he said. “If not, I’m proud the law has given us the tools to go in and say, ‘You guys have done a lot, but we need to do more to protect this community.’”

The state’s ethylene oxide guide says short-term or acute effects from high exposure “include central nervous system depression, respiratory and eye irritation, and gastrointestinal effects. Long-term (chronic) exposure to ethylene oxide can cause respiratory and eye irritation, and damage to the nervous system.” 

The guide says there is also some evidence of effects on reproduction, including miscarriages and decreased sperm count and increased risk of breast cancer. 

The EPA is pointing toward potential risk, not actual risk, Terumo’s statement said. “Terumo BCT supports EPA’s nationwide review . . . and its efforts to engage the community on new risk information. We will continue to provide data and the expertise of our team to assist EPA in its review.”

EPA said it found elevated risks of cancer related to ethylene oxide emissions at 23 medical sterilizers across the United States. A community information meeting for Lakewood will be held Oct. 25.

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: Twitter: @MBoothDenver