LAREDO, Texas (Border Report) — The Clean Air Laredo Coalition and the nonprofit Earthjustice on Tuesday announced plans to sue the Environmental Protection Agency if it fails to set emission standards to regulate a cancer-causing toxin that is found in high concentrations in Laredo.

The EPA last week held a town hall meeting with residents in Laredo to discuss the harmful effects of ethylene oxide, which is an odorless and colorless gas.

A risk-assessment study released in July by the EPA links ethylene oxide, or EtO, with an “elevated cancer risk in the Laredo community.” And the study directly linked those risks to a medical equipment sterilization facility, the Midwest Sterilization Corporation, which is located in northwest Laredo and near several schools.

“We’re giving the EPA 60 days notice to come out with ethylene oxide emissions standards across the country,” Raul Garcia, legislative director with the nonprofit organization EarthJustice said during a news conference Tuesday morning on the steps of the Laredo City Hall.

According to the EPA report, 10 schools in Laredo are among the highest in the nation with detected concentrations of ethylene oxide.

Garcia said EarthJustice has teamed up with the grassroots Clean Air Laredo Coalition to “demand” the federal agency gives communities, like Laredo, more protections against this chemical.

They also are asking that air monitors be set up on the border “to get accurate data about the chemicals,” he told Border Report.

Laredo City Councilwoman Vanessa Perez said the community was not aware of the dangers of ethylene oxide and did not know it was being emitted into the air.

“We didn’t know about it. It’s an odorless, colorless gas,” Perez told Border Report during Tuesday’s news conference. “Now we’re finding out that EPA knew about it for years.”

Midwest Sterilization Corporation has operated in Laredo since 2005.

In a statement to Border Report, the company said it takes its regulatory compliance seriously.

“We are currently in compliance with all federal and state emissions control requirements, and expect to remain in compliance, including when the new rulemaking is adopted,” the statement read. “EtO is an important tool in protecting patient health. Midwest is taking all steps necessary to ensure that patients across the nation and residents locally remain safe. Furthermore, we are currently working on additional emissions control measures ahead of EPA’s new rulemaking timeline.”

The Laredo City Council on Monday night approved subsidizing an air quality survey for Laredo.

Perez said they have asked five entities to participate, including two area school districts, and for each to fund $35,000 for the study.

The study will be overseen by the nonprofit Rio Grande International Study Center, which Executive Director Tricia Cortez says has monitored water quality in the Rio Grande for years, but they had no idea this cancer-causing chemical was in the air.

“Last summer we found out about this company,” she said. “They flew under the radar.”

But she said her community is galvanizing and demands help from federal and state officials.

“People often underestimate Laredo and it’s too bad,” Cortez said. “We have a fierce group of community advocates in South Texas. Here in Laredo, we take a stand and we hold our ground and we won’t back down until our people are safe.”

Cesar Ortiz holds a photo of his daughter Yaneli Ortiz, 15, who has leukemia as he participated Tuesday in a press conference in Laredo, Texas, held by the Clean Air Laredo Coalition. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“There are a lot of kids who have been impacted by this and many more who will be impacted by this if we do not act now,” said Edna Jimenez, 36, a mother of three children ages 15, 11 and 8.

She said her son Higinio’s friend in 2019 was diagnosed with leukemia, and she said she knows many other families who are suffering. That is why she says she joined the Clean Air Laredo Coalition.

“We need air to breathe. It’s not a want. It’s a need,” she told Border Report.

Olivia Martinez says her son has a brain tumor. They lived near schools listed by the EPA as having an elevated risk for cancers due to air toxins. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Olivia Martinez, whose 25-year-old son Alejandro Martinez was diagnosed with a brain tumor last month, could not hold back tears and she had trouble talking about him during Tuesday’s news conference.

She told Border Report that he has been sick since 2005 and he attended two schools listed on the EPA’s high-risk list for ethylene oxide.

“I had him in the afterschool program. I’m a single parent. He stayed there from 7:45 to 6 p.m. in the evening playing outside in the playground being exposed to this every single day,” she told Border Report. “I want answers. We were homeowners and never were told about this Midwest Sterilization Company.”

Martinez says her son has suffered from headaches, nose bleeds and eye ailments for years that doctors could not diagnose.

At Thursday’s EPA meeting, she received a list of environmental doctors, some in San Antonio, that she says they are now reaching out to for further evaluations.

“He has been suffering for so long,” she said. 

“He has been suffering for so long.”

Olivia Martinez, Laredo parent

She said Alejandro recently graduated from Texas A&M International University with an MBA, and he wants to go to law school, but now that is on hold.

They have since sold their home and moved to another area, but she says they know many former neighbors and classmates who are sick.

“They’re all sick. They all have cancers,” she said.

Garcia said Laredo has been “hit the hardest” by this toxin.

He said if the EPA does not implement standards then EarthJustice will file a civil suit under the Clean Air Act to try to force stricter regulations. He said the civil lawsuit would not seek to receive financial retribution but to set standards that would help other border communities and towns across the United States that also are affected.

On its website, the EPA said it was “reviewing controls on regulated equipment and processes that emit EtO to determine whether additional air pollution controls are needed.”