Residents near South Memphis plant say cancer study overdue

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — For decades, the Environmental Protection Agency said ethylene oxide was not a dangerous chemical.

Now, the agency acknowledges that that early evaluation was wrong.

This could mean so much for some living in South Memphis near the Sterilization Services of Tennessee plant.

“I mean, I have an issue now going outside,” said Rose Sims, a South Memphis resident.

Lettie White, another resident, said, “I’ve had bronchitis, I can hardly breathe at times, my sinuses are all messed up, my eyes get watery.”

The two said they’ve experienced decades of respiratory problems and what they describe as odd smells.

“I mean, who wants to be outside that this chemical is being released in the air and nobody’s doing anything about it?” said Sims.

One group that is trying to help is the Memphis Community Against Pollution (MCAP). Its director of outreach, Angela Johnson, said the group sent a letter to the Shelby County Health Department.

“So the purpose of the letter was asking that the Shelby County health officer use his emergency powers to have the sterilization services in Tennessee, cease operations or not, or discontinue their use of ethylene oxide,” said Johnson.

The Environmental Protection Agency has learned the chemical is linked to high cancer rates. The agency says EtO is 60 times more toxic in children and 30 times more toxic in adults than originally thought.

For the people there, the timeline of action is not moving quickly enough.

“It doesn’t matter. It’s hurting all of us. So do something about it. Don’t give them permits. You know that they are doing it. Stop the permits. Let them move,” said Sims.

On Thursday, the Shelby County Health Department sent out a release saying it plans to bring in the state’s department of health cancer registry to help do a cancer study.

But it does not specify when this study will happen.

Johnson said the study isn’t only essential but could save lives.

“Ethylene oxide, unbeknownst to many of us in the area, is highly pathogenic and even worse is used to sterilize medical equipment,” she said. “Let me start there. It is used to sterilize medical equipment because it is so great at destroying DNA.”

A presentation by the health department is expected next month.