Congressional Dems demand new EtO limits

Sens. Durbin, Duckworth lead sponsors of bill calling for lower legal standards on ethylene oxide

 U.S. Sen Dick Durbin is one of the lead sponsors of a bill calling for new environmental standards to be set on emissions of ethylene oxide. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

U.S. Sen Dick Durbin is one of the lead sponsors of a bill calling for new environmental standards to be set on emissions of ethylene oxide. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

Several Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation, led by both Illinois senators, joined in introducing a bill Thursday calling for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set new standards on emissions of ethylene oxide.

EtO has been in the news since the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a report in August blaming emissions for a higher incidence of cancer surrounding the Sterigenics plants in Willowbrook in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. That caused a public outcry and the formation of the grassroots group Stop Sterigenics. It soon followed that EtO was also being released in Lake County by Medline Industries in Waukegan and Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee.

EtO was only formally labeled a carcinogen in the final months of the Obama administration in 2016, and Sterigenics has maintained it was under legal limits for emissions of the chemical. The Lake County firms were also well under previously established standards, and the new bill submitted Thursday called for new, lower standards recognizing the dangers.

“It’s long past time for the EPA to update its air emissions standards for ethylene oxide — a known carcinogen,” said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin in a statement released by his office. “Illinois residents of Lake and DuPage counties deserve action now.”

Durbin was joined by junior Sen. Tammy Duckworth and U.S. Reps. Brad Schneider, Bill Foster, and Dan Lipinski in introducing the bill in both houses of Congress.

“We won’t let the EPA sit on its hands when it comes to protecting the public health of Illinoisans,” Durbin added.

Schneider, of Deerfield in Chicago’s northern suburbs, emphasized that time was critical. “Our bill would give the EPA 180 days to update its ethylene-oxide emission standards based on the science because we cannot delay when it comes to the health of our families,” he said. “The legislation would also require public notification for any emission violations to ensure local communities have the facts about the safety of their air.

“This is about our public health,” he added, “and we need action now.”

Duckworth blamed President Trump’s EPA for “failing to protect Americans from breathing in toxic air,” calling it “absolutely unacceptable.” She emphasized that “even at low levels, ethylene oxide is dangerous to public health,” adding, “The EPA needs to immediately update its safety standards to safeguard Americans from cancer-causing emissions.”

“The EPA’s work is critical for protecting the health and well-being of the American people and Illinoisans,” said Foster, a former Fermilab physicist who lives in southwest-suburban Naperville. “It is important that we take immediate action to close existing loopholes in our chemical safety laws so that communities in Illinois are protected from public health risks posed by toxic chemicals like ethylene oxide. This legislation would require the EPA to utilize the best scientific data to update emissions standards and ensure transparency. We simply cannot accept the status quo and risk endangering public health.”

 Gov. Rauner has held an ownership stake in Sterigenics through investments. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Gov. Rauner has held an ownership stake in Sterigenics through investments. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Durbin, Duckworth, Schneider, and Foster met with acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, earlier this month and called for him to take action. They have also accused the EPA of a cover-up.

Although the bill addresses the problem at the federal level, Gov. Rauner and the Illinois EPA have been complicit, with Rauner having held an ownership stake in the firm. Attorney General Lisa Madigan has charged that the IEPA dragged its feet in releasing Sterigenics’ emission data to her office — even after a Freedom of Information Act request. Her office also accused the EPA and its Illinois counterpart of being aware of the Willowbrook cancer cluster and informing Sterigenics of the elevated risk eight months before the public was alerted. That gave the firm time to install new pollution devices that have complicated enforcement. She has since filed suit to shut down Sterigenics at the formal request of the IEPA.

The EPA scheduled an open house at Ashton Place, 341 75th St., Willowbrook, at 3 p.m. Thursday, to be followed by a public meeting at 7 p.m.