Rep. Newman Introduces Matt Haller EtO Awareness Act to Increase Transparency on Carcinogenic Chemicals in Foods

Mar 21, 2022
Health Care

New legislation would require food to have clear labeling if it has been sterilized with ethylene oxide (EtO) or propylene oxide (PO), which are known or probable carcinogenic chemicals 

WASHINGTON, D.C – Today, U.S. Representative Marie Newman introduced legislation to increase transparency when it comes to possible cancerous chemicals being used to sterilize an assortment of foods in the United States. The Matt Haller EtO Awareness Act would require food to have clear labeling if it has been sterilized with ethylene oxide (EtO) or propylene oxide (PO), which are known and probable carcinogenic chemicals that are banned for food sterilization in other countries across the globe. 

The bill is named after Matt Haller, a resident of Illinois who passed away in 2019 from stomach cancer that is believed to have been linked to the local EtO sterilization plant near his home. Haller filed a lawsuit against the company claiming the EtO gas emitted caused health problems in people who lived or worked nearby. Unfortunately, Matt passed away shortly after filing this suit, but thankfully, the state of Illinois and the EPA have since shut this facility down. 

“While countries across Europe have effectively banned these carcinogenic chemicals for food sterilization purposes, here in the United States, we don’t even have labeling to let consumers know if these substances have been used on their foods,” said Congresswoman Newman. “The American people deserve better transparency, and the Matt Haller EtO Awareness Act will do just that by ensuring consumers know whether or not their food is treated with possible harmful chemicals. I am proud to name this bill after the late Matt Haller, who died fighting for the safety of his own community after it was being poisoned by EtO emissions coming from a local plant. It is with this same relentless determination and urgency that we all call on Congress to pass this bill in his honor and increase transparency around EtO chemicals.” 

EtO and PO are gas compounds commonly used by manufacturers to sterilize medical equipment. However, these chemicals are also commonly used to sterilize many of our U.S. food products that we use every day such as spices, dried herbs, dried vegetables, sesame seeds, and walnuts. In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that EtO is a carcinogen and PO is a probable carcinogen. Additionally, the World Health Organization classifies EtO as Group 1 carcinogen, which is their most dangerous category for known and suspected agents. 

Some studies have shown continual exposure to EtO residue in food over a long period may increase the risk of cancer. As a result, many countries have recognized the danger of EtO and have banned or severely restricted its use as a food sterilant, including the European Union and Australia. In the United States, the only way consumers know if their food is not treated with EtO, is if the food product is USDA certified organic, which requires steam sterilization to be considered organic. 

“From Illinois to Appalachia, to the Gulf South, to Puerto Rico, countless communities across the country face an immorally high cancer risk due to toxic air pollution from ethylene oxide – as high as 1 out of every 500 people, which is 2,000 times higher than EPA’s safety level,” said Daniel Savery, Senior Legislative Representative of Earthjustice. “Fighting for stronger air protections is one piece of the puzzle – the other is shedding a light on the products sterilized with this potent carcinogen. Earthjustice supports the Matt Haller EtO Awareness Act because it will allow consumers to make an informed decision about the foods they and their families consume. We thank Representative Newman for her leadership on this vital issue.” 

This commonsense legislation introduced today would provide Americans with the right to know if food has been treated by these two substances through accurate labeling. Consumers deserve the right to make an informed decision as to whether to expose themselves and their families to residuals of these substances. 

The full text of the legislation can be found here.  


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