Memphis plant that uses potentially hazardous chemical will close, company says

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A medical equipment sterilizing plant that uses a chemical whose emissions could lead to cancer and other health risks says it plans to close its Tennessee location by next spring, according to a letter sent by the company to U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen.

In the July letter, lawyers for Sterilization Services of Tennessee told the congressman that the company has dealt with issues relating to a lease extension for its Memphis plant and the facility will be closed by April 30.

The Environmental Protection Agency has said the plant has used ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment and materials. The facility has operated since 1976. The county health department’s air program has permitted the facility since 1985.

Ethylene oxide is used to clean catheters, syringes, pacemakers, plastic surgical gowns and other items.

While short-term or infrequent exposure to ethylene oxide does not appear to pose a health risk, the EPA said long-term or lifetime exposure to the colorless and odorless gas could lead to a variety of health problems, including lymphoma and breast cancer.

The EPA has regulated ethylene oxide emissions for 30 years. But in 2016 new scientific information revealed that the chemical is more toxic than previously understood, the EPA said

This past April, the EPA proposed limiting the use of the chemical after finding a higher than expected cancer risk at facilities that use it to sterilize billions of medical devices each year.

The EPA said its proposal will reduce ethylene oxide emissions by roughly 80% by targeting 86 medical sterilization facilities across the United States. The companies will also have to test for the antimicrobial chemical in the air and make sure their pollution controls are working properly.

On its website, Sterilization Services said its Memphis plant is the company's flagship location, with other facilities in Georgia and Virginia.

The company's letter to Cohen said the Memphis plant “has never been out of compliance with reference to federal, state and local mandates and regulations by which it is governed.”

In response to public concern about the chemical emissions, the Shelby County Health Department held an Aug. 24 meeting about a petition for an emergency air pollution order related to Sterilization Services’ operations sought by Memphis Community Against Pollution, an environmental watchdog.

In a statement released Wednesday, the Southern Environmental Law Center said the closing is “a major victory for nearby neighborhoods who have been fighting for cleaner air.”

“Families living near the Sterilization Services of Tennessee plant have been exposed to toxic ethylene oxide pollution for far too long, and we are pleased that they may soon be able to breathe easier,” said Amanda Garcia, a senior attorney with the center.

The SELC notes that the plant is located in south Memphis, which is majority Black and includes other industrial sites that present a threat to residents' health. One of those locations is a former U.S. Army depot where waste disposal contaminated soil and groundwater with dangerous chemicals.