WSAZ Investigates | Testing air for cancer-causing chemicals

WSAZ Investigates | Testing air for cancer-causing chemicals
Published: Feb. 25, 2022 at 7:23 PM EST
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KANAWHA COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) - The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said two Union Carbide facilities, just miles apart in Institute and South Charleston, release so much ethylene oxide (EtO) that the cancer risk in this area is much higher than the national benchmark of one in a million.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Union Carbide confirm the plants are operating within their permits. However, the DEP said it is taking air samples around the facilities that will take months to determine the exact risk around these plants.

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WSAZ hired an independent company, ALS Life Sciences, in hopes of getting answers for people who live in this area. We followed Paul Painter as he went to work testing the air around the two Union Carbide facilities for EtO emissions.

We chose one location near each plant. The first test was completed on the campus of West Virginia State University, which sits right next to the fenceline of the Institute facility. The second test was placed on the Mound in South Charleston, a place many people visit near the other Union Carbide plant.

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Painter cut open the glass testing tube to allow air to be collected by the charcoal inside. That was connected to a pump to ensure air is being pulled into the tube at an even rate to collect any ethylene oxide that’s in the area.

These locations are near where DEP documents and maps show the maximum risk from EtO around the plants. However, Painter said emissions of chemicals in the air can change every day based on weather conditions.

The tests were left for two hours to collect air samples, and then Painter returned to cap off the tubes and mail them to a lab in Salt Lake City.

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It took about a week for the results to be completed, and Painter brought the results to our WSAZ station to go through the data that could ease some concerns.

“What we found is basically nothing detected on those tubes,” Painter said.

The tests in both Institute and South Charleston show no EtO was found in the air we collected, with all of the results reading less than detectable levels.

That’s very different than what the EPA data shows, but Painter said there are a number of factors that could impact the results including the weather and if the plants were producing EtO at the time of the testing.

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We took these results to people who live near the plants. Margaret Easton said she was very scared when she first heard about the EPA data revealing the high cancer risk, but she still has a number of questions after we got our test results.

“That’s a relief because, like I said, I’ve been here 22 years, and there’s other people around her has been here longer than I have,” Easton said. “But, it’s still just alarming that there’s two different stories about the whole situation.”

“I think (the DEP) need to elaborate a little bit more of what they have found and what they haven’t found, because they will set people’s minds at ease,” Easton said.

On Friday afternoon, we reached out to the DEP to see if there are any updates on the testing it is currently doing and to get a copy of the data to compare to our results.

“The WVDEP has received preliminary results from the first round of monitoring,” Chief Communications Officer Terry Fletcher said in an email. “These results are currently going through the Quality Assurance process and cannot be released at this time. Please note that these results serve as only one data point and the WVDEP would not be able to draw conclusions from this one data point of information. This data point only captures one 24-hour period, and is not representative of 70 years of exposure.”

“Once all monitoring results have been received from the certified lab and have gone through the Quality Assurance process with the WVDEP and EPA, the WVDEP will make them available to the public and announce the results publicly as soon as possible,” Fletcher continued. “The WVDEP has consistently provided updates to the EPA as the monitoring project has progressed. The agency stays in constant, daily, communication with the EPA on various topics, including EtO.”

We also reached out to the EPA for any updates it has received from the air quality monitoring.

“The Agency continues to communicate with our partners in Congress and at the state level to ensure protections for West Virginians,” Press Officer David Sternberg said in a statement. “This includes collecting and analyzing additional information about air toxics in Kanawha County. This work is still underway and the results will be made public when this assessment is complete.”

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