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Unveiling Environmental Challenges: EtO’s Impact on Puerto Rico

Sep 19, 2023 - Blog by


Startling revelations by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have illuminated a concerning environmental issue in Puerto Rico. For decades, communities near four commercial sterilization facilities have been exposed to ethylene oxide (EtO), a cancer-causing gas. This chemical, used for medical equipment sterilization and the production of other chemicals, has prompted health concerns among local residents.

Understanding EtO:

EtO is a chemical compound with both industrial and medical applications. It’s widely utilized in sterilizing medical equipment and producing products such as plastics, antifreeze, and adhesives. However, the adverse health effects it poses are a cause for concern. Notably, EtO exposure has been linked to cancer, including breast cancer, blood cancer, stomach cancer, leukemia, lymphoma, pancreatic cancer, and brain cancer. EtO is also related to reproductive issues, miscarriages, developmental abnormalities, and nervous system disorders.

Uncovering the Environmental Injustice:

Recent EPA findings have exposed increased cancer risks for communities surrounding the sterilization facilities in Puerto Rico. Some residents face cancer risks up to 500 times higher than the average U.S. citizen. Moreover, the revelation that one facility has emitted EtO since 1989 emphasizes the need for effective control measures and timely awareness.

Four Puerto Rican communities—Añasco, Fajardo, Salinas, and Villalba—stand at the heart of this matter. Residents living near these facilities are faced with the following elevated cancer risks due to EtO emissions.

  • Steri-Tech, Inc. in Salinas – 6000 cases per million.
  • Edwards Lifesciences in Añasco – 5000 cases per million
  • Customed, Inc. in Fajardo – 1000 cases per million
  • Medtronic PR Operation Co. in Villalba – 800 cases per million

The issue deepens when examining the demographics of the affected communities. These four facilities in Puerto Rico were targeted on a “red flag” list of 23 nationwide sites by the EPA, which indicates the far higher risk of EtO emissions to Puerto Rican citizens than the total American population. Many of the residents are people of color and low-income individuals, reflecting the broader challenges of environmental justice. While the EPA’s informational efforts are informative, they may not fully address the years of hardships faced by these communities.

Striving for Accountability and Solutions:

A recent legal triumph in an EtO lawsuit in Illinois offers a glimmer of hope and underscores the significance of accountability. Recently, a plaintiff prevailed in an EtO lawsuit. An Illinois jury found that Sterigenics, a sterilization facility that uses EtO, should pay $363 million in damages to a woman that lived near the facility. The jury determined that the toxic EtO gas being emitted from Sterigenics caused her breast cancer. The plaintiff’s compensation for the role of toxic emissions in her breast cancer highlights the potential for change through legal channels. This victory serves as a reminder that holding entities responsible can drive positive transformations for a safer environment.


The EPA’s disclosure of EtO emissions in Puerto Rican communities raises important concerns about public health, the environment, and equity. Tackling these challenges demands collaborative action to create safer surroundings and raise awareness. Using legal pathways, we can work towards a more balanced and equitable approach to environmental issues and level the playing field for communities impacted by such harms. Moving forward, let’s commit to learning from past oversights and advocating for healthier, fairer communities for everyone.

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