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It’s interesting which ads pop up on social media feeds from time to time.
Recently, an ad from Tosi Law has been showing up on Facebook and Twitter, asking Mountain Home residents if they’ve been diagnosed with blood cancer and suspect exposure to ethylene oxide while working at or living near the Baxter Healthcare plant on the edge of town. The plant is typically known as ‘Baxter Lab’ to locals in Mountain Home.
The ad offers a free case review to those that “may qualify for compensation.”
The ad often gets laughs from local residents, many who claim that the ad is a scam or fake. Sadly, while this particular ad is designed to drum up potential lawsuits for a personal injury law firm located in Charlotte, North Carolina, its focus is grounded in a real lawsuit.
In 2020, Baxter International recorded the third highest levels of ethylene oxide nationwide at its Mountain Home plant. A year before that, the company reported to the Environmental Protection Agency its highest release of gas since the company ramped up production in 2015.
To combat the high levels of ethylene oxide emissions at Baxter Lab, Baxter International invested $50 million into the facility to reduce the release of gases, which are used to manufacture medical devices. The company reported a 65% decrease of gas in emission in 2021.
Ethylene Oxide is one of the key ingredients in the health care industry when it comes to creating medical devices as it is the only current chemical capable of sterilizing equipment on a mass scale. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates that half of all medical devices in the U.S. are sterilized with the gas.
The EPA in 2017 estimated that the lifetime cancer risk due to exposure from Baxter Lab to be three times higher than the federal agency’s limit of acceptable risk. According to the assessment, if one million people were to be continuously exposed to the gas for 70 years, roughly 300 of them would likely contract cancer due to the gas. The risks near Baxter Lab were listed as the highest in Arkansas.
Baxter Lab shares a fence line with dozens of homes that are connected to a larger neighborhood that’s filled with hundreds of people. The facility rents a large field from the City of Mountain Home that acts as a buffer between residents and the lab. Roughly 5,000 people live within the area that the EPA estimated as having a lifetime cancer risk in 2020.
It should be noted that these past estimates and emissions data are out of date and do not reflect current emissions from Baxter Lab in Mountain Home.
The push from law firms on social media to drum up potential lawsuits most likely springs from a lawsuit filed by Mountain Home residents Tamara Knight and Gary Beck in March of 2020. The pair accused Baxter International of significantly elevating cancer risks near their homes. The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas.
“Individuals living and working near the Baxter facility face some of the highest long-term cancer risks in the United States,” plaintiff attorneys wrote in a legal document filed in March 2020. “These individuals have been unknowingly inhaling ethylene oxide on a routine and continuous basis for decades. Now they are suffering from a variety of cancers, reproductive issues, birth defects and other life-altering health effects from their continuous exposure to ethylene oxide.”
Along with the lab’s reports of increased emissions from 2015 onward, the lawsuit pointed to earlier records of high ethylene oxide emissions in 2000, as well as a report that the lab produced emissions 16 times higher than current reports in the 1980s.
Baxter International argued that there was no way of knowing to what extent that Knight and Beck were exposed to emissions or if there were other factors that would predispose the pair to their cancer.
The federal judge in the case, Timothy L. Brooks, partially sided with Baxter International by granting a motion to dismiss three of Knight and Beck’s complaints, but denied the dismissal of their final complaint.
The judge determined that the company’s argument that it had not violated its state-issued permit was not enough to “immunize the company from a negligence claim.” The judge also turned down the company’s claim that it did not have a duty to warn the public about its emissions since “the information was already publicly available.”
Baxter International considered its reports to state and federal regulators as its main means of keeping the public informed about what chemicals were being used at its facilities. The company also cited its relations to the Mayor’s Office in Mountain Home.
“A sophisticated internet user with enough understanding of the situation to know what information to look for and where to look might have been able to find data regarding Baxter Healthcare’s emissions,” wrote Brooks. “But that does not necessarily relieve Baxter of a duty to warn.”
Baxter International settled its case out of court for an undisclosed amount in 2021. Most of the complaints against Baxter Lab in Mountain Home are usually due to noise or construction work. The company is the second-largest employer in Mountain Home, falling slightly behind Baxter Health, formerly known as Baxter Regional Medical Center.
The facility was one of the only ethylene oxide emitters in Arkansas to regularly report their emissions within the state for the last 10 years. Federal regulators began tamping down on ethylene oxide emissions in 2019.
In a public statement to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette in 2022, a representative for the company said they would continue exploring options to decrease emissions.