The B. Braun plant in Hanover Township is emitting a cancerous gas into the air, raising concerns for employees and citizens, according to the most recent EPA data.
The plant, near the Lehigh Valley International Airport, emitted 4,600 pounds of ethylene oxide during 2018, a gas that is linked to white blood cell cancers. This makes the plant the 12th-largest emitter of ethylene oxide, according to the EPA.
B. Braun, a medical and pharmaceutical device company, uses ethylene oxide, or EtO, to sterilize products.
B. Braun said online that ethylene oxide is currently the only available alternative to effectively sterilize certain medical products.
Citizens of the Lehigh Valley region are faced with a cancer risk that is 200 times higher than the Pennsylvania state average, according to EPA data.
Nathan Mixa is a lifelong Allentown resident and lives three minutes from the B. Braun plant. He believes citizens are not aware of the emissions of EtO from the plant.
“There’s a lot of projects going up that are warehouses and manufacturing,” Mixa said. “So, if it’s something that’s going to affect us even more in the future, people should be aware.”
Mixa said regulation should be put in place from a state or federal level.
“Before the public demands policy adoption, we have to accurately understand what we are exposed to and what they pose in terms of the health risks,” said Hyunok Choi, an epidemiologist and new associate professor in Lehigh’s College of Health.
Choi said in countries such as Sweden and France, the public is much more aware of dangerous chemicals.
There is currently no local, state or federal law for how much ethylene oxide can be emitted from a given plant. However, Steve Peters, an environmental science professor, said companies must obtain a permit from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP).
Peters said B. Braun is breaking no laws, as they are permitted to emit 20,000 pounds of EtO a year.
The reported emission levels have been less than 10 percent of those allowable under the air permit issued by the PA DEP, the B. Braun website said.
In terms of employees who are most exposed to EtO, OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, sets regulations for how long employees can be exposed to ethylene oxide and the pressure level of the gas within the facility.
“If you work in a hazardous environment, you can have a right to know what the hazards are — and that’s part of the OSHA regulation,” Peters said. “The right motivations are keeping people safe. They do. I mean, the bigger the company, the more attention they pay to it because it’s a huge liability.”
The company has repeatedly decreased its output of EtO each year.
Choi said she does not anticipate a change within the industry if the public does not demand safer alternatives.
“I suppose we can debate who should bear the most blame, but this may not be the most productive exercise,”Choi said. “ (A) much more helpful approach would be a formation of a coalition between the companies, government, academic institutions and citizen groups to collect data, which would serve as the basis of policy development.”
The mayor’s office in Allentown, the Hanover Township town hall and the B. Braun press department declined to comment on the topic when contacted.