Stop EtO calls protest in Lake County

Grassroots group raises concerns over ethylene-oxide emissions like those at Sterigenics

Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee is involved in a controversy over emissions of ethylene oxide in Lake County. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee is involved in a controversy over emissions of ethylene oxide in Lake County. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

A grassroots group in Lake County has scheduled a public protest Saturday over concerns on emissions of ethylene oxide like those at the shut-down Sterigenics facilities in Willowbrook.

Calling it a “public awareness event,” Stop EtO has set it for 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the southeast corner of Grand Avenue and Hunt Club Road near the Gurnee Mills Mall in Gurnee.

“Most residents who are aware are upset about it and would like something done about it — especially testing what our exposure is,” said Ryan Horath, a Gurnee resident and member of Stop EtO.

After a cancer cluster was detected in the area surrounding the Sterigenics facilities in southwest-suburban Willowbrook late last summer, the grassroots group Stop Sterigenics formed to call for more public testing and, ultimately, to halt EtO emissions there. Sterigenics was sealed from using ethylene oxide by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency in February, a month into the new administration of Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin called for testing to be conducted in Lake County in November, after the Chicago Tribune reported that two firms — Medline Industries in Waukegan and Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee — were using EtO in sterilization. More recently, U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider of Northbrook has called for $3 million to be earmarked in the upcoming federal budget specifically for EtO testing such as the study conducted in Willowbrook.

According to Horath, Stop EtO was “somewhat” modeled on Stop Sterigenics. Thus far, it’s gathered almost 1,000 members on Facebook.

“We need to raise awareness,” he said ahead of Saturday’s protest. “Willowbrook had kind of a head start on us in raising awareness, because their news broke at the beginning of the fall, when it was still warm and they had protests right away.

“We kind of were in the dead of winter, and it was difficult for us to do anything like go door to door and hold any kind of protest. So we had to gain momentum more slowly. And we’re looking to change that now.”

The Lake County Health Department has called for the same sort of cancer study that was done in the Willowbrook area to be done in Lake County. But thus far there isn’t the same sort of damning evidence of an elevated cancer risk that the Illinois Department of Public Health also turned up in a news release last week.

“The vagueness is part of the problem,” Horath said.

“I have personally talked to people who have had cancers that could have been caused by the companies,” he added. “There’s nothing concrete, and there’s nothing you can really hang your hat on.”

Stop EtO insists it’s not trying to shut the firms down, but it is calling for more testing and an end to EtO emissions.

Vantage Specialty Chemicals has issued a statement declaring its “commitment to the community” and saying that it’s installing and testing new air-pollution scrubbers at its Gurnee facility, and that it’s monitoring emissions. It stated: “Vantage takes this matter very seriously, not only because we have been a longstanding corporate resident of Gurnee, but because many of us also call this community our home for ourselves and our families.”

Medline likewise posted a statement online saying: “Our employees send their children to local schools, visit the parks there, and shop in local stores. Our top priority is keeping these families safe and ensuring public health.”

Stop EtO has said that plans for testing announced by the Lake County Department of Health are insufficient. “They think we’re misinterpreting the information they put out,” Horath said. “We thought the information they put out was just inadequate.”

He suggested the IEPA was leery of creating an additional health problem by shutting down more sterilization companies, who do much of their work on medical supplies — a concern that has been raised by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“It seems that their perspective is that they think that the best way to move forward in Lake County is to work cooperatively with the companies here, as opposed to what happened in Willowbrook, where they had testing and shut them down,” Horath said. “They seem to want to avoid that here.

“I think it’s largely a lack of appetite for any more controversy and any more court cases,” he added. “And also not wanting to confront what would happen if they shut down another sterilizer, because the FDA has said that would cause a shortage almost for sure if a second large sterilizer in this area were shut down. I think the IEPA didn’t want any part of that, basically. They want to avoid that.”

The IEPA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“We’re just trying to raise more awareness,” Horath said. “That’s our main goal, not to be angry or anything like that, just to raise awareness and get more people to understand this issue, because we still come across a lot of people who aren’t familiar with it at all.”