EPA detects fresh EtO spikes at Sterigenics sites

Stop Sterigenics community group ‘outraged,’ calls protest, renews demand for shutdown

The latest EPA data found ethylene oxide spikes at two sample sites closest to the Sterigenics facilities in Willowbrook. (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)

The latest EPA data found ethylene oxide spikes at two sample sites closest to the Sterigenics facilities in Willowbrook. (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)

By Ted Cox

New data released Tuesday by the Environmental Protection Agency left southwest-suburban residents “outraged” over freshly detected spikes in ethylene oxide at the Sterigenics facilities in Willowbrook.

“The results are in and they are horrendous,” the Stop Sterigenics community group posted on its Facebook page Tuesday after an EPA webinar released the latest findings on EtO levels surrounding the sterilization facilities. “Levels as high as 11.67 (micrograms per cubic meter) have been reported. We are outraged and immediate action of shutdown is needed.”

The EPA released data Tuesday from air samples taken in the area surrounding the two Willowbrook Steigenics facilities in the last week of November and throughout December, finding, “The two sites located closest to the two Sterigenics buildings are seeing the highest ethylene oxide concentrations.” They averaged “a little over 2 micrograms per cubic meter.” It quickly added, however, “there have been readings as high as 10 and 11 micrograms per cubic meter.”

Stop Sterigenics immediately called a community protest for 3:30 p.m. Tuesday at Gower Elementary School, 7650 S. Clarendon Hills Road, Willowbrook. The group issued a statement saying: “Earlier today the EPA released new ambient air results. The numbers are staggering and the impact is certain, with reported levels in excess of 11.67 near Sterigenics.”

The group repeated its claim that “no amount of EtO is safe; levels such as these pose an immediate health risk for all in the area.” Insisting, “These are the highest levels yet to be reported,” the group emphasized, “This is AFTER Sterigenics stated to the community and all elected officials that they have pollution controls in place to reduce emissions. It is blatantly obvious that they continue to poison our community and are unable to control fugitive emissions.”

Urging immediate action from state and federal elected officials, Stop Sterigenics concluded, “The situation has always been a grave one. Now, with these new reports, it is an immediate health crisis. Sterigenics is knowingly and willingly poisoning the people of DuPage County. Enough is enough … we demand a shutdown.”

Ethylene oxide is know to disrupt gene structures and cause cancer. It was blamed for a cancer cluster in the area in and around Willowbrook in a federal report released in August — months after the EPA and the Illinois EPA knew about it and consulted Sterigenics, leading to charges of a cover-up from then-Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Madigan filed suit to shut down the company, actually at the request of the IEPA, but the firm continues to operate.

WBBM-TV Channel 2 in Chicago reported Sunday that ethylene oxide emissions at Sterigenics were blamed for cases of cancer in the area. Sterigenics responded that reports that employees had illegally released ethylene oxide at the facilities “are simply wrong” and that “Sterigenics Willowbrook has a proven record of operating safely and in compliance with regulations.”

The problem there, though, is that ethylene oxide was only formally labeled a carcinogen in late 2016 in the last months of the Obama administration, and the EPA has never updated its regulations on emissions of the substance under President Trump.

Even the latest EPA release waffled on one of its own direct Frequently Asked Questions on safe levels of EtO, stating: “The agency does not have a ‘bright line,’ or a level for ethylene oxide below which air quality is considered OK.”

Illinois congressional Democrats have repeatedly called for those “safe” levels to be re-established, most recently in a meeting with Sterigenics corporate heads last week.

After Sunday’s CBS 2 TV report, Sterigenics attempted to explain that EtO “is produced by many natural and man-made sources and is in the air all around us. Recent air sample tests across the Chicago area show that the ambient air levels of EtO around Willowbrook are consistent with levels found across the Chicago area.”

But that position won’t stand against Tuesday’s released data showing the highest spikes in EtO concentrations in the two sample sites closest to the Sterigenics facilities.

Ted Cox