IRWINDALE — Behind a dirt bunker in back of the Baxter Pharmaseal plant sits a giant drum of ethylene oxide, a highly flammable, cancer-causing gas that company officials say is the only substance they know of for sterilizing disposable hospital equipment.
Every 24 hours, five days a week, 600 pounds of the chemical pass through an underground pipeline to four vacuum chambers inside the plant, where the gas permeates the packaging of such items as oxygen masks, surgical trays and urinary drainage bags.
It was emissions from that process that landed the Baxter facility on an Environmental Protection Agency list released June 8 by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles). It names 205 industrial plants nationwide that could pose an excessive cancer risk.
But company officials last week disputed the data, contending that the report was based on figures compiled before 1984, when the plant was outfitted with an incinerator to destroy leftover ethylene oxide.
"We take a lot of pride in what we do," said plant manager Steve Toth. "That data was real, real old and has no bearing on the way we operate."
Now, Toth said, the used gas is torched at about 1,500 degrees, eliminating more than 99% of its toxicity. What comes out of the plant's 50-foot smokestack, he said, is little more than steam.
That was confirmed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which permits the plant to use up to 1,000 pounds of ethylene oxide daily and has no record of violations at the facility.
A spokesman for the EPA said Baxter's inclusion on the list indicates only that ethylene oxide has been emitted from the plant sometime in the past, possibly more than five years ago.
Although the list shows that emissions from the plant may pose a 1-in-1,000 risk of cancer over a lifetime of exposure, the federal agency said those are general numbers that were never intended to assess public health risks at individual sites.
"Those estimates are not credible," said EPA spokesman Al Zemsky. "They're subject to very significant error."
All of which seemed to be taken in stride by neighbors of the plant, which is located on Foxdale Road in this tiny industrial city of 1,230 residents.
"I never knew there was a problem there," said Robert Rosales, who lives on a quiet side street about a block away. "I never really noticed the place."
Ken Ehlers, whose family has owned the A & B Bus Co. next to the plant for 14 years, said he wasn't too concerned.
No Problems From Plant
"We've never had any problems with them," Ehlers said. "Besides, you eat too much of the wrong food now days and you get cancer."
The plant, built in 1961 and known formerly as American Pharmaseal, was acquired in 1985 by Baxter International Inc., the $7-billion-a-year, Illinois-based health care conglomerate that controls nearly a quarter of the hospital-supply market.
The sprawling 450,000-square-foot facility, which employs 900 workers, is just one of 21 such plants worldwide run by Baxter, Toth said.
Visitors, after signing in with a security guard and donning a stick-on name tag, are given a beige lab coat and the kind of floppy hair net that a cafeteria worker might wear--not to protect them from chemical residue, Toth said, but to keep any of their lint from falling on the products.
Throughout the plant there are big whirring machines--earplugs are required at many of the job stations--that spit out more than 1,000 different items, from little plastic stopcocks to long rolls of tubing to stack after stack of molded hospital trays.
To help preserve the sanitary environment, glowing black-light devices are mounted on the walls at the entrances of every work site to zap errant bugs. "This is hospital equipment," Toth said. "You can't have insects floating around."
Much of what is made at the plant then gets packed into cardboard cartons that are stacked for 18 hours in the "preconditioning room," a steamy 115-degree chamber that opens the pores of the boxes and the packaging inside.
From there, the cartons are put into the sterilization vessels, where they sit for 10 1/2 hours while ethylene oxide is pumped in, then sucked out of the cartons.
"This is the only effective, safe method," said Toth, who doesn't mind visitors to the plant but who prohibits photographs of the interior to protect trade secrets. "If you didn't have ethylene oxide, you wouldn't have a lot of sterile things in the hospital."
Although the gas is considered a carcinogen in large quantities, it is not currently regulated by the EPA. However, because of the potential for harm, Toth said, the firm installed the incinerator voluntarily.
"Being a health care company, we're concerned about the environment," he said. "We knew there was a possible problem."