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  • Posted June 11, 2024

Many Louisiana Residents May Be Exposed to Sky-High Levels of Toxic Gas

Many Louisiana residents are being exposed to a cancer-causing toxic gas that's used in industrial settings, researchers report.

A cutting-edge mobile air-testing lab found dangerous levels of ethylene oxide along large stretches of Louisiana, sometimes at levels a thousand times higher than what is considered safe, according to findings published June 11 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

“I don't think there's any census tract in the area that wasn't at higher risk for cancer than we would deem acceptable,” said senior researcher Peter DeCarlo, an associate professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

“We expected to see ethylene oxide in this area,” DeCarlo added in a university news release. “But we didn't expect the levels that we saw, and they certainly were much, much higher than EPA's estimated levels.”

The findings suggest significantly higher cancer risks for people who live near industrial facilities that use ethylene oxide, researchers said.

Ethylene oxide is a man-made gas used to manufacture other chemicals, to fumigate structures and to sterilize medical and food production equipment.

It's very dangerous to humans, even at low concentrations. Long-term exposure has been linked to cancer, researchers said.

Many facilities using ethylene oxide are concentrated in southeastern Louisiana, where a history of exposures to toxic chemicals have led to it being dubbed “Cancer Alley.”

“We went out to answer the question: how much ethylene oxide is in the air in this region and are the levels of concern for people's health?” said lead researcher Ellis Robinson, an assistant research engineer at Johns Hopkins. “Making it happen involved putting cutting-edge analytical equipment in a giant mobile laboratory that we could drive all around, analyzing data for about a month.”

Two vans equipped with highly sensitive equipment repeatedly looped around a heavily industrialized route between New Orleans and Baton Rouge during the winter of 2023, collecting air and testing it.

“By driving the same route, over and over and over again at different times of day over the over the course of an entire month we were able to build up statistics and get average concentrations throughout the region,” DeCarlo explained.

Ethylene oxide is so toxic that red-flag levels for human health start at anything more than 11 parts per trillion.

The team found levels as high as 40 parts per billion in spots close to industrial facilities, “which is more a thousand times higher than the accepted risk for lifetime exposure,” DeCarlo said.

Researchers also found elevated levels of the toxic gas as far as 6 miles downwind from the plants.

Levels detected by the team's instruments were significantly higher than those found with the EPA's current screening tools, meaning that nearby communities could have much greater risks for cancer than previously known.

“Our study demonstrates the need for more accurate measurements to help identify locations to install monitors for more long-term monitoring and so we can best protect the health of people who are living in those areas,” DeCarlo said.

More information

The Environmental Protection Agency has more about ethylene oxide.

SOURCE: Johns Hopkins University, news release, June 11, 2024

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