Congressional Democrats press EPA on EtO

Durbin, Duckworth, Foster, Schneider meet EPA head, demand action on ethylene oxide cancer scare

 Sen. Dick Durbin said Illinois members of Congress “plan to hold the EPA accountable every step of the way” on emissions of ethylene oxide. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Sen. Dick Durbin said Illinois members of Congress “plan to hold the EPA accountable every step of the way” on emissions of ethylene oxide. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

Four members of the Illinois congressional delegation met with the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Thursday to demand action on ethylene oxide emissions that have caused spikes in cancer cases in suburban Chicago.

U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin and U.S. Reps. Bill Foster and Brad Schneider, all Democrats, met acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to discuss EtO emissions at three firms blamed for causing cancer clusters in and around Willowbrook, Waukegan, and Gurnee.

“We made it clear,” Durbin said, “that the residents of Lake and DuPage counties deserve much better from his agency, and that we won’t stand for inaction to protect the public health of Illinoisans.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a report in August on a cancer cluster detected in the area surrounding Willowbrook and blamed it on emissions of the carcinogenic substance at the Sterigenics plants there. That prompted local residents to form a community group called Stop Sterigenics calling for the facilities to be shut down.

The Chicago Tribune then reported that two Lake County companies — Medline Industries in Waukegan and Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee — had also been releasing ethylene oxide into the air, with Waukegan also suffering a rise in cancer cases. According to the Tribune, the only reason Gurnee wasn’t included in the cancer clusters is “that someone at the state level failed to provide the facility’s ethylene oxide emissions for the U.S. EPA’s latest estimate of cancer risks.”

Critics have charged a cover-up on the part of both the U.S. EPA and the Illinois EPA, citing that they informed Sterigenics of the cancer spike late last year, eight months before the public was warned. Gov. Bruce Rauner has also had an ownership stake in Sterigenics, and his IEPA dragged its feet in supplying emissions data for the firm to Attorney General Lisa Madigan before formally asking her office to shut Sterigenics down.

Complicating matters is that the U.S. EPA only ruled EtO a carcinogen at the end of 2016 in the last months of the Obama administration, and state and federal regulations have not caught up with that classification. All three suburban Chicago firms releasing EtO into the air were under legal limits.

“It’s past time for the EPA to implement the proper safety mechanisms and air monitoring systems at these three facilities, update its air emissions standards for ethylene oxide, and thoroughly investigate whether it followed the proper protocols and requirements when it chose to withhold public health information about the dangers associated with these emissions,” Durbin said in a statement released following Thursday’s meeting. “Sen. Duckworth, along with Reps. Foster, Schneider, and myself, plan to hold the EPA accountable every step of the way.”

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“We will not stop until the people of Illinois can be certain they are breathing safe, clean air.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

“It’s critical the EPA takes action on this public health crisis to reassure families who live near these facilities in DuPage and Lake counties and are at risk,” Duckworth added. “That means improving EPA’s safety standards for ethylene oxide and increasing EPA’s oversight of facilities that produce it. It means being more transparent with the general public and immediately providing DuPage County residents with the test results on the new pollution controls at Sterigenics, which are being withheld from the public for no good reason. And it means requiring Medline and Vantage to install similar equipment to ensure they are no longer pumping cancer-causing emissions into their neighboring communities. We emphasized to acting Administrator Wheeler that we will not stop until the people of Illinois can be certain they are breathing safe, clean air.”

“It’s clear the people of Willowbrook deserve answers about Sterigenics and the company’s impact on their health, and the timeline of EPA actions,” said Foster, of Naperville. “I will continue to work with my colleagues in Congress to ensure that the public is fully informed.”

“Every family should have safe breathing air, and I will be working with my colleagues to ensure the EPA implements and enforces high, science-based standards on ethylene oxide to protect our public health,” added Schneider, of Deerfield. “The residents of Waukegan, Gurnee, and Park City also deserve to know their communities are safe.” He also called for the EPA to hold public meetings on the controversy.

Duckworth, Durbin, and Foster have already called on the EPA to launch an investigation into whether there was a cover-up surrounding the EtO releases at Sterigenics, and Schneider joined the senators in calling for an investigation into the Lake County firms releasing the substance into the air.