'Outrageous': Cancer scare hits Lake County

Sens. Durbin, Duckworth decry lack of EPA oversight on ethylene oxide

 Sen. Dick Durbin is calling for the state and federal EPA to intensify their oversight on ethylene oxide emissions. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Sen. Dick Durbin is calling for the state and federal EPA to intensify their oversight on ethylene oxide emissions. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

Calling it “simply outrageous,” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin is demanding that the Trump and Rauner administrations exercise more oversight on carcinogenic emissions after two new Lake County firms were added to the cancer scare that began this summer with Sterigenics in Willowbrook.

“This is simply outrageous,” Durbin said in a statement released Friday. “Day after day, the Rauner and Trump administrations continue to prioritize public relations over serious public health hazards.”

Durbin cited a Chicago Tribune story last week that added two new Lake County firms — Medline Industries in Waukegan and Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee — to Sterigenics in releasing carcinogenic ethylene oxide into the atmosphere. According to the Tribune, Vantage released even more EtO into the atmosphere than Sterigenics, and Waukegan has been identified with the same sort of cancer cluster as Willowbrook from the emissions.

Trib reporter Michael Hawthorne noted that Gurnee did not appear on a federal map showing high cancer concentrations, but added that shouldn’t make local residents comfortable, as “federal and state officials confirmed the only reason it isn’t on the map 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.”

On Friday, Durbin issued a series of demands for the state and federal Environmental Protection Agencies: “The U.S. EPA and Illinois EPA must immediately begin conducting ambient air monitoring and stack tests to identify all emissions from the Medline and Vantage facilities and determine whether these facilities are releasing harmful levels of ethylene oxide — cancer-causing emissions. They must also guarantee that both companies are taking the necessary steps to limit ethylene oxide emissions using any available pollution control technologies.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published a report in August stating that a higher incidence of cancer existed in the area surrounding the Sterigenics facilities in Willowbrook due to emissions of ethylene oxide, a carcinogen, in its sterilization process. That prompted a public outcry and the formation of the Stop Sterigenics community group.

The Tribune and Attorney General Lisa Madigan both stated that the U.S. and Illinois EPA knew of the heightened cancer risk last December, when Sterigenics was informed. IEPA went on to allow Sterigenics to install new pollution-control equipment before the public was informed, which has complicated efforts to hold the firm accountable, although Madigan filed suit last week to shut down the firm.

Also complicating matters is that EtO was only formally classified as “carcinogenic” at the end of 2016 in the last months of the Obama administration, and local pollution regulations have yet to catch up to the increased risk. Sterigenics was technically under legal limits for EtO emissions, and even Vantage Specialty Chemicals would be under the limit if held to the same standards.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth pointed that out in joining Durbin’s call for action Friday. “The fact that Sterigenics and companies in Lake County all appear to be operating within their permits doesn’t mean ethylene oxide is any safer, but rather shows us that regulations limiting the chemical’s emissions are woefully inadequate to protect our families and our children,” Duckworth wrote in a Facebook post. Adding that she was working to update and strengthen regulations, she said, “The people in communities surrounding these facilities — and all Illinoisans — deserve much better than this from those charged with protecting public health.”

Because Gov. Bruce Rauner has owned a stake in Sterigenics, while the IEPA withheld emissions data from Madigan’s office and word on the potential health scare from the public, some have charged Rauner and IEPA with a cover-up.

“The Rauner and Trump administrations must be fully transparent with the public about the information they have on these two facilities, and set a public meeting for Lake County residents,” Durbin demanded. He also cited how he and Duckworth had already called for the U.S. EPA’s inspector general to investigate the dealings surrounding Sterigenics.

The Stop Sterigenics community group, meanwhile, continues to apply pressure in Willowbrook and surrounding areas. It has scheduled what it calls an “empty stroller protest” at 5:30 p.m. Monday starting at 7825 S. Quincy St., Willowbrook. Protesters are asked to bring an empty baby stroller of some sort “to represent the children lost to miscarriage and cancer in our community.”