'Shut down Sterigenics'
Andrea and Jim Thome lead calls by west-suburban residents to close sterilization firm
By Ted Cox
Protesters with the west-suburban community group Stop Sterigenics rallied outside the Thompson Center in Chicago Tuesday, as the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency moved to have Sterigenics’s Willowbrook facility shut down over cancer concerns.
The IEPA formally asked Attorney General Lisa Madigan on Tuesday to pursue “an order enjoining Sterigenics from continuing operations.” It cited a report issued in August by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services finding that “an elevated cancer risk exists for residents and off-site workers in the Willowbrook community surrounding the Sterigenics facility.”
That report has sent local residents in the western suburbs of Chicago into a furor and led to the creation of the Stop Sterigenics group.
“We’re scared,” said Neringa Zymancius, a Darien resident and Stop Sterigenics member. “Sterigenics has been poisoning our land, air, and water for over 30 years.”
“Sterigenics has been poisoning our land, air, and water for over 30 years.”
Neringa Zymancius (One Illinois/Ted Cox)
The major concern is over emissions of ethylene oxide, a carcinogen. The company has maintained emissions have been within legal limits.
Sterigenics did not respond to requests for comment.
“There is no acceptable level of ethylene oxide,” said Sri Rao of Stop Sterigenics. “This is a chemical used for sterilization because it kills everything it touches.”
Andrea Thome, wife of baseball Hall of Famer and former White Sox star Jim Thome, said she had a “lightbulb moment” when she heard of the federal report released in August, because her mother had died from liver cancer and her father had suffered a brain tumor after moving into the area.
“Both of my parents were very healthy,” Thome said. “We asked them to move here to help us raise our kids” in the western suburbs, and they settled a mile from the Sterigenics operation. “I’m sorry,” she added, “but I don’t believe in coincidence that much.”
She said she’d written a blog post about her parents’ ailments, and many local residents had responded with similar stories.
“This is personal to us,” Jim Thome said. “Sterigenics has been poisoning the air in our community for a long, long time.”
Zymancius said she had suffered from migraines and nausea after moving into the area in 2014, adding, “The only time we notice a difference is when we leave the state for more than a week, and suddenly your headaches are gone, your nausea is gone, your tiredness is gone.”
She called it “a step in the right direction” that the IEPA asked Attorney General Madigan to move to call a hearing to temporarily close the Willowbrook Sterigenics plant.
“Attorney General Madigan has significant concerns about the threat posed by Sterigenics to the public’s health and the environment,” said spokeswoman Eileen Boyce. “The federal government needs to have ambient air testing done immediately. We are reviewing all legal options before us.”
The IEPA sought the closure “until a complete review of additional modeling and risk assessment is completed by U.S. EPA or until U.S. EPA otherwise assures the community that resumed operations would not present an elevated health risk.”
It’s an about-face for the IEPA, in that it initially dragged its feet in passing along emissions data at the Willowbrook Sterigenics operation requested by Madigan’s office. The Chicago Tribune has reported that Gov. Bruce Rauner has an ownership stake in Sterigeics through investments, although he insisted following his debate with Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday that he had divested three years ago.
State Rep. Jim Durkin, the House minority leader, said he too is concerned, living four miles away from Sterigenics in Western Springs. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “the doors should be shut until we know whether or not what is being emitted from Sterigenics is within safe levels.” Durkin said that new tests should tell more by the end of the month.
Durkin, however, tried to turn the political tables by charging that Senate President John Cullerton of Chicago had canceled a committee meeting Tuesday because he didn’t want to give favorable publicity to state Sen. John Curran of Downers Grove, who has spearheaded efforts to hold Sterigenics accountable.
According to Durkin, Curran is in “a heavily contested race against John Cullerton’s cousin,” Bridget Fitzgerald, “and they do not want John Curran to get any more attention on this issue. That is why the committee was canceled today.”
State Sen. Dave Koehler, however, dismissed those charges, saying the hearing had simply been postponed and would be rescheduled.
“Scheduling conflicts prevented many who wanted to participate in the hearing from being able to do so,” said Koehler, chairman of the Senate’s Environment and Conservation Committee. “We are rescheduling to make sure we build in enough time for testimony from everyone who wants to be heard on his matter.”
“I’ve been calling for a shutdown from the beginning on this,” Curran said. “Our standard here is no elevated risk is acceptable.”
While the IEPA and Madigan’s Office pursue temporary closure of Sterigenics, the matter seems headed for the General Assembly in the end.
“We need action from the state legislature to make this problem go away — not just for us, but for all Illinoisans,” Rao said.
“Not only do we want Sterigenics to be shut down,” Zymancius said. “We want EtO to be banned not only in Illinois, but in the U.S. as well. We don’t want this in our state, and we don’t want it in anybody’s state.”
In the meantime, area residents continue to fret. “I’ve been fielding calls from very alarmed moms and dads about whether or not their kids can play outside,” said Dan Cronin, chairman of the DuPage County Board. “Should we open the windows? Can we breathe the air?”
“This place does not belong in our community.”
Andrea Thome (One Illinois/Ted Cox)
Andrea Thome said she’s tested the wind to see if it’s suitable to send her 10-year-old son out to play baseball at a nearby field, and that local businesses are suffering because “people are afraid to go and shop there.” She added, “This place does not belong in our community.”
“We know this is lethal,” Zymancius said. “We know this is deadly. And I understand they say it’s not an immediate threat. You’re right, it’s not an immediate threat — because cancer kills slowly.
“This is where I bought my forever home,” she added. “I can’t just get up and move. We’re not billionaires. We’re just regular working-class Americans.”
Thome said it was the pleasant environment and the people that prompted them to settle in the western suburbs when her husband joined the White Sox in 2006, and they’ve never moved anywhere else. In fact, she said, the turmoil had in some ways brought local residents closer together.
“We love it here,” she said. “We are not going anywhere.”