Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp on Wednesday sued four medical and food sterilization firms in Los Angeles and Orange counties, saying they have exposed an estimated 3 million people to emissions of toxic ethylene oxide, a potent carcinogen that also can cause reproductive abnormalities.
In the most sweeping lawsuits ever filed under Proposition 65, the 1986 anti-toxics measure, Van de Kamp charged that the companies failed to adequately warn the public of possible exposure to the toxic gas. Van de Kamp based his allegations on emissions figures the companies routinely file with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Van De Kamp also is seeking an injunction to stop the emissions and asking for civil penalties under California's air toxics nuisance laws. If found guilty and fined the maximum allowed, the companies could face billions of dollars in penalties.
Some Southland residents were exposed to EtO, an odorless and colorless gas, in amounts more than 100 times higher than safety thresholds spelled out under Proposition 65, Van de Kamp said. The gas is used to kill germs on medical equipment and in food such as spices.
Plant employees and people living near nine different buildings owned by the four companies in Vernon, Long Beach, Anaheim, Irwindale and Irvine are the most likely to have been exposed to high levels of the gas, Van de Kamp said. He said the emissions date back to at least early 1988 when Proposition 65 took effect.
State officials said no health studies have been done on those groups. The cases are being referred to the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health because thousands of workers at the plants may have been exposed, Van de Kamp said. However, Van de Kamp said, if someone did get cancer who "lived within striking distance of these emitting sources, how could you ever trace it back to the source?" In any case, he said "immediate action" by the companies is imperative.
EtO has been linked to an increase in spontaneous abortions among hospital workers exposed over long periods of time, state officials said. A Swedish study on exposed workers showed a more than tenfold increase in leukemia. EtO is also known to cause tumors in lab animals. The chemical also produces genetic mutations and chromosomal aberrations in the reproductive cycle even after short-term exposure, officials said.
Statewide, 800,000 pounds of EtO are emitted each year, most of it in Southern California, causing an estimated 360 to 510 cancer cases when exposure occurs over a lifetime, state officials said.
Proposition 65's "safe harbor" limit is two micrograms of EtO per day over an individual's lifetime, said Deputy Atty. Gen. Edward Weil. When exposure levels are higher, he said, "you get into the significant risk area" of one death per 100,000 people, which is considered an unacceptable cancer risk.
Van de Kamp said he hopes the lawsuits will send a message to polluters who are exposing whole communities to toxics that an occasional newspaper ad or bulletin board announcement "is not enough under Proposition 65." Some of the companies named in the lawsuit had relied on such notifications, he said.
The proposition requires "reasonable" public notice--an effort Van de Kamp said should include radio and television campaigns when so many people may be affected.
In the most serious violation, Van de Kamp said, Griffith Micro Science in Vernon in the last 2 1/2 years exposed nearly 2 million people to EtO levels as much as 104 times higher than acceptable.
In a prepared statement, Griffith Micro Science Vice President William FitzGerald said the company "leads the industry in control of EtO emissions." He said control equipment was installed in 1987 and that additional equipment being installed this year will "eliminate 99.9% of such emissions." Van de Kamp said the emissions data shows that another major EtO emitter, Botanicals International in Long Beach, currently is exposing about 550,000 people to levels up to 41 times beyond those deemed safe.
Botanicals International did not return phone calls from The Times on Wednesday.
Van de Kamp said that of the four companies--all of which were aware that an investigation was under way because records were subpoenaed--only Griffith Micro Science has taken any major corrective action recently. The company temporarily has closed down to install equipment to stem EtO emissions.
Van de Kamp decried the "needless health risks of cancer and birth defects" to those who were exposed. He said proven technology is readily available that removes "99.8%" of EtO from emissions and said they could have been installed long ago at all of the facilities. The devices, known as scrubbers, remove the toxic elements from the gas before it is released into the air.
"This is relatively inexpensive (equipment) in big business terms," Van de Kamp said.
The other companies named in the lawsuits are Sterilization Services of Anaheim and Baxter Healthcare Corp.