West Bethlehem residents are at 4 or more times the risk of developing cancer

(The latest in a series of posts relating to the environment, Bethlehem’s Climate Action Plan, and Bethlehem’s Environmental Advisory Council)

This disturbing article escaped Gadfly’s attention till a member of the “Next Door” blog posted:

West Bethlehem residents are at 4 or more times the risk of developing cancer as a result of ethylene oxide pollution from B. Braun’s plant in Hanover township. I, for one, am very concerned about this news and risk. Has anyone brought this up to city council or our state reps?

Binghui Huang, “EPA raises concern about elevated cancer risk for people living around B. Braun plant near Allentown.” Morning Call, July 20, 2019.

A medical device company suspended operations in a Chicago suburb for most of this year after mounting community pressure prompted the state to order the facility to stop releasing a carcinogenic chemical into the air.

But more than 700 miles to the east, a Lehigh Valley medical device company hasn’t faced the same pressure to stop emitting the chemical — ethylene oxide — even though it released about 50% more of the chemical than the Sterigenics plant outside Chicago in 2016, the latest year with EPA emission data for both companies.

B. Braun, a German medical and pharmaceutical device company with a plant in Hanover Township, Lehigh County, by Lehigh Valley International Airport, is the 12th biggest polluter of ethylene oxide nationwide, according to EPA’s latest cancer-causing pollution data. Ethylene oxide, a gas commonly used to sterilize medical equipment, is linked to breast cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, among others.Braun has broken no laws in its ethylene oxide emissions, which from 2008 to 2015 increased from about 1,900 pounds to 7,600 pounds, according to EPA data. The company is permitted to release up to 20,000 pounds of the gas per year, said Colleen Connolly, a spokeswoman with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Since 2015, B. Braun’s emissions have decreased each year to 4,660 pounds in 2018, according to the company and the EPA.

The EPA says there may be an elevated health risk in areas where the possibility of getting cancer from breathing the polluted air over a lifetime is greater than 1 in 10,000 people. The agency applies that standard when determining which facilities need to reduce emissions. On July 10, the EPA contacted the DEP with its concerns about ethylene oxide emissions from B. Braun, Connolly said. DEP likely will inspect the facility in the coming weeks, including reviewing possible ethylene oxide leaks, she added.

In 2014, the data show that B. Braun accounted for 92% of all of Pennsylvania’s ethylene oxide emissions, putting more than 41,000 residents near its plant at a higher risk of developing cancer under the federal standard.

“B. Braun’s highest priority is the health and safety of our employees, our community, and millions of patients who depend on our medical products,” he said in a prepared statement. “We would not operate our facility if we believed our operations created an unsafe environment for our employees or our neighbors.”

One Hanover Township neighborhood immediately surrounding the airport — bordered to the west by the Lehigh River and to the east by Schoenersville Road, and including Route 22 — has a cancer risk from ethylene oxide that is greater than 200 times that of the state average risk, which is 2.4 per 1 million people. Nationally, that ratio is 1.3 in 1 million.

U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-7th District, said last week she will ask the CDC to study the effects of ethylene oxide pollution on Lehigh Valley residents.

Braun’s manufacturing plant is in an industrial area, but just down the block from Hanover Township’s Allendale neighborhood, with townhouses, a playground and a dog park.

Unlike the situation with B. Braun, which has brought no public outcry, emissions from the Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook, Illinois, had people up in arms.

Gadfly gathers that data shows that air quality in Bethlehem is not good. For some odd reason Gadfy remembers that a speaker at the Martin Tower evening meeting at Nitschmann asked our Health Director why. If memory serves, she said, somewhat fatalistically, that we are in a valley. Didn’t seem like a good answer.

But we certainly don’t need this “present” to add to the mix.

It’s Thursday, August 1, do you know where your local Climate Action Plan is?

One thought on “West Bethlehem residents are at 4 or more times the risk of developing cancer

  1. I think the statement that ‘West Bethlehem residents are at 4 or more times the risk of developing cancer as a result of ethylene oxide pollution from B. Braun’s plant in Hanover township’ probably over-states the risk, since the plant has been steadily reducing emissions for several years and does not have many people living in its immediate vicinity.

    What I don’t know at all, how far from the plant do you have to be in order to be safe?

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