A new order from the South Coast Air Quality Management District requires a Vernon-based medical device sterilizer to cut its operations, potentially to the point of a complete shutdown, when emissions of ethylene oxide are detected above certain thresholds.

The company, Sterigenics, will have to reduce its operations by 20% any time fence-line air monitoring detects ethylene oxide, a carcinogenic gas used in the sterilization process, above 17.5 parts per billion, a threshold roughly fives time higher than typically allowed. If the emissions exceed 25 parts per billion in a single day, or stay above 17.5 parts per billion for two days, operations must be cut in half.

The facility must cease all operations after three instances of excess emissions, according to the order approved Friday, Sept. 9.

Under the order, Sterigenics also is required to upgrade its air pollution control systems, install temporary enclosures — and permanent ones within two years — to reduce emissions, and conduct regular air monitoring.

Ethylene oxide is a colorless and odorless gas used to sterilize medical equipment used by hospitals and doctors throughout the country. Long-term exposure over a period of years, however, can increase the risk of lymphoid and breast cancers, in particular, and cause reproductive issues. Sterigenics’ facility in Vernon handles the sterilization of 45 million medical devices and supplies each year, including surgical kits, catheters and IVs, according to the company.

The South Coast AQMD previously detected levels of ethylene oxide outside of Sterigenics that were as high as 32 times above the allowable limit. However, the facility has not exceeded 17.5 parts per billion — the new threshold for a partial shut down — since June 28, according to data released by South Coast AQMD. Though Sterigenics’ voluntary operational changes over the past few months have reduced ethylene oxide levels, the levels are still elevated and believed to pose a risk to off-site workers, according to an AQMD press release.

The company and the air quality management district had previously agreed to less stringent terms, but their proposal was rejected by the South Coast AQMD’s hearing board in early August.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who has criticized the South Coast AQMD’s handling of the matter and repeatedly called for the shuttering of Sterigenics, called the new order an “improvement” in a statement.

“I continue to believe that this facility needs to be shut down until they can lower their emissions to legally allowed levels, but this new SCAQMD order is a substantial improvement over what had last been proposed and one step closer towards lowering these toxic emissions and making the air in and around Vernon safe for workers and residents alike,” she said.


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