Cancer In The Air
Whenever people visit Grand Rapids, Michigan they generally feel pretty good about the place. It most people’s definition of a nice town. The downtown is hopping, it’s generally clean, and the overall family orientation is hard to miss. Most residents will say without reservation, “Great place to grow up!” And, it is. A plurality of Michigan’s twelve billionaires hails from this town of 200,000. They must do something right there. In this context, it was a huge shock to residents of this proudly mid-American city that they had a problem. An air quality problem to be specific. Since this is about as far as one can get (geographically and otherwise) from the choking exhaust of say Los Angeles, this was unexpected news. It turned out that Viant, a local medical device manufacturer, was emitting a VOC called Ethylene Oxide into the air. If you have never heard of Ethylene Oxide, you are not alone. You would be in good company in the Grand Rapids area. The most important thing to know about this particular VOC is that it causes cancer.
And you can see from the interactive map which came by way of the Chicago Tribune, the risk of cancer from Ethylene Oxide emissions is particularly acute adjacent to the Viant plant, but is significantly above the state average over the entire metro area. So, why would a city of nearly a quarter of a million be totally unaware of the deadly threat to their town? It’s a good question and one that the Michigan Department of the Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy hope to answer in its ongoing investigation. Typically air pollution falls under the EPA’s jurisdiction, and what is clear here is that the regulatory agency was negligent in its duty to protect the public in this instance. According to the Chicago Tribune article that was the source of this excellent map, they routinely refuse to monitor air quality and tend to bury such relevant details in an occasional report titled The National Air Toxics Assessment. Needless to say, this rather technical publication doesn’t fly off the shelves of everyone’s favorite bookstore. So, demands for better circulation of Ethylene Oxide information are not unfounded. Ethylene oxide has been linked to breast cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma.
Beyond Grand Rapids
Ethylene Oxide emissions are not just a local problem limited to residents of Grand Rapids. This phenomenon is a nationwide problem. Other communities found to be at elevated risk are the petrochemical producing regions of Louisiana and Texas, the suburbs of Atlanta and Denver, Charleston, SC, and rural regions of Missouri to name a few. If this article concerns you, as we hope it will, then please take the time to look at the National Air Toxics map produced by the EPA. See where your hometown stands on the cancer risk scale. The big problem here is that most of the emitters are not well-known operations. If few readers have heard of Ethylene Oxide, it is likely that even fewer have heard of Viant, the culprit in Grand Rapids. Many of the responsible parties in the emissions problem similarly fly under the radar of public notice. The emissions activities also often occur in nondescript buildings, where it is certain to go unnoticed. The perpetrators are sneaky, so you have to be vigilant.
Fortunately, some communities have decided to stand up to the threat posed by Ethylene Oxide emitters. A company called SterIgenics set up shop behind a Target store in the Chicago suburb of Willowbrook. The company used the facility for Ethylene Oxide-based sterilization. Word got out though, and the community demanded action. Cries for justice became louder, and politicians took notice. The pressure was brought to bear on the EPA, and for once the regulatory agency took bold action. They started to deploy air quality monitors near the Sterigenics facility to monitor Ethylene Oxide emissions.
While this is not necessarily the end of the story, it is an important step forward in dealing with the problem. Other communities at risk are not so lucky.
But, what happens now? To be frank, probably not much. First of all, the United States EPA, which has the responsibility for regulating Ethylene Oxide emissions on a national level, is a monster. It has over fourteen thousand employees, is rife with internal politics, and moves as slowly as one might expect such an organization to move. Second, to be candid, many of these polluting companies serve a much-needed purpose. Medical devices aid in healing and contribute mightily to the medical miracles that occur daily. And, sterilization is necessary to keep the public free from pathogenic microbes. So, we can’t just regulate these organizations away overnight. And lastly, state action is going to be limited. If Michigan passes the strongest laws in existence to regulate the Ethylene Oxide emissions in Grand Rapids, that industry will just move to another, less stringent jurisdiction. So, the problem just passes from one place to another. To solve this problem will require some real thought, and for many antagonistic parties to put aside their differences and come together on a common cause. That probably will not happen any time soon.
An Everyman Solution To the Ethylene Oxide Problem
So, what is the person caught in the middle to do? The average middle-class American doesn’t have a powerful political lobby at their disposal, and probably has no connection to the levers of power whatsoever. Fortunately, the common person has options. There are air purification technologies that can eliminate Ethylene Oxide from the air of a home, which can dramatically reduce the risks associated with exposure. One technology in particular, which is called Photocatalytic Oxidation (PCO) stands out in this regard. PCO is a phenomenon discovered by a pair of Japanese scientists, which removes electrons from organic (carbon-based) chemical structures. The process is initiated by UV light (hence the “photo” in photocatalytic oxidation) and has a great story to it. It was studied by NASA to eliminate Ethylene emissions aboard spacecraft. Ethylene is emitted by fresh-cut fruits and vegetables and acts as a ripening agent. However, in too high a concentration it can cause premature ripening and endanger people. The PCO technology worked and was successfully deployed on the International Space Station and the Columbia mission. It has since been developed for commercial use. Another aspect of this technology that makes it so appealing for this particular problem is that it is completely safe. It was used aboard sealed spacecraft and has even been approved by the FDA for use in surgical theatres. Some air purifiers emit things as dangerous as the air quality problems they are brought in to curtail. Ozone and Formaldehyde are the most common culprits. Both cause serious health issues. Other air purifiers are simple filters. These are great for removing things like dust or dog hair from the air but won’t work in removing Ethylene Oxide. You also probably already have one in your home. Every AC unit uses a filter, so why pay more for something you already have? PCO works and has been demonstrated to be really effective in solving this specific problem for three decades. So, it is unquestionably your best bet for a VOC air purifier.
The dangers associated with Ethylene Oxide emission may have finally attained public awareness in a mid-sized Michigan town, but it is in no way a local issue. It is truly global in scope. Everyone should be aware of it and know who is emitting it in their corner of the world. We say this as a grave warning because of the well-documented government malfeasance on this issue. Don’t wait to hear about this in the headlines, or from your local public official. The PCO technology which was developed and refined by NASA is a safe, effective, and immediate solution to this problem. Get aware, and get active before the consequences affect you and your family.