Pritzker signs bills applying 'tourniquet' on ethylene oxide

Lake County finds new EtO spike near Medline in Waukegan

The Lake County Health Department found a spike in EtO readings near Medline Industries in Waukegan, releasing the data even as Gov. Pritzker was signing new EtO regulations into law. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

The Lake County Health Department found a spike in EtO readings near Medline Industries in Waukegan, releasing the data even as Gov. Pritzker was signing new EtO regulations into law. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

Gov. Pritzker signed a pair of bills applying a “tourniquet” on statewide emissions of carcinogenic ethylene oxide Friday, even as the Lake County Health Department released new data finding an EtO spike near a Waukegan sterilization firm.

Pritzker signed two Senate bills into law. The first, Senate Bill 1852, known as the “Matt Haller Act,” requires sterilization companies to “capture” all “fugitive ethylene-oxide emissions” within a facility, and calls on firms using EtO to cut emissions of the carcinogen 99.9 percent to 0.2 parts per million.

Haller was a former Willowbrook resident who filed suit against the Sterigenics firm, blaming the medical-sterilization facility for the cancer that killed him in March. He thus became the first EtO litigant to die from the suspected cancer cluster in the southwest suburbs surrounding Sterigenics.

Sterigenics was shut down in February by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency about six months after a federal report identified a cancer cluster in the western suburbs, blaming EtO emissions at the firm.

“Protecting the health and well-being of the people of Illinois has always been my top priority, and I'm proud that this legislation keeps dangerous pollutants out of our communities," Pritzker said in a statement. "Families in affected areas can breathe easy. Illinois now has the strictest safeguards in the nation, and I appreciate the hard work of the General Assembly in developing this bipartisan legislation and bringing it to my desk.”

“Matt loved this community,” said his widow, Colleen Haller. “Named in his honor, this law is part of his legacy of being a caring father and fighting for our families.”

The other law, Senate Bill 1854, applies emission standards to non-sterilization facilities and calls on the IEPA “to conduct at least one unannounced inspection of all EtO sterilization sources per year and air testing to determine the ambient levels of EtO throughout the state,” according to a news release put out by the Governor’s Office.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul praised the new laws and said they would be vigorously enforced. Members of the General Assembly from the affected areas — both Republicans and Democrats — also applauded the state action.

“Protecting Illinois residents from the threat of ethylene oxide was a bipartisan effort and I would like to thank everyone, including Gov. Pritzker and his staff, who worked on this legislation that ensures proper protections are in place when it comes to this dangerous chemical," said House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, a Western Springs Republican whose district includes Willowbrook. "The tragic situation which unfolded in Willowbrook at the Sterigenics facility should have never happened. This law will help make sure that it never will again.”

“It is vital that once a public health crisis is identified, it is dealt with as quickly and aggressively as possible," said Sen. Melinda Bush, a Grayslake Democrat whose district is close to Medline Industries in Waukegan and Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee, both of which have been implicated in EtO emissions similar to those that resulted in the seal order against Sterigenics. "As soon as I learned that Lake County had two companies that were emitting ethylene oxide into our air, I started to work on what is now the strictest set of regulations of ethylene-oxide emissions in the United States. Today Gov. Pritzker is signing into law two very important bills — bills that both set the highest emissions standards and ensure constant monitoring of those that use ethylene oxide. Our residents deserve nothing less than clean air to breathe.”

Grassroots groups in both DuPage and Lake County joined other local politicians in applauding the new limits.

Margie Donnell, a member of the Stop Sterigenics group that has led the fight against the west-suburban firm, called the Haller Act “a strong first step in recognizing that ethylene oxide is an extremely dangerous chemical and that regulations need to reflect the danger it poses to public health.”

Stop Sterigenics issued a news release saying, “The law functions as a tourniquet, limiting but not stopping ethylene-oxide poisoning,” while reiterating the group’s primary position that “there is no safe dose of ethylene oxide.”

EtO was formally found to be a carcinogen in the last months of the Obama administration in 2016, but the Trump administration never updated legal limits on the chemical, and Trump’s EPA has been accused of “capitulation” on testing in and around firms using EtO.

Tea Tanaka, senior scientist and representative of the grassroots group Stop EtO in Lake County, called SB1854 “an important step toward protecting the residents of Lake County from the dangers of ethylene oxide emissions,” adding, “Stop EtO in Lake County will continue to work to ensure that all residents of Illinois are protected from this dangerous gas.”

Even as Stop EtO was making that announcement on Pritzker’s bill signing, the Lake County Health Department was releasing new data from testing done earlier in the month finding “the presence of EtO at elevated levels at one location in Waukegan, and at varying and lower levels at all other sites.”

The Lake County testing found EtO levels spiked to 10 micrograms per cubic meter near on Pulaski Drive near Medline.

“While these results represent only a small portion of the samples to be collected and will be part of a future health risk assessment, we are concerned about the preliminary reports of EtO levels measured nearest Medline,” said Mayor Sam Cunningham of Waukegan. He added that the results were being forwarded to the IEPA for enforcement.

Medline issued a statement saying the tests were conducted before new emission-control equipment was installed, and “with that installation now complete, Medline has finished the first step to having one of the strongest emission-control programs in the nation.”

Both laws take effect immediately, with non-sterilization firms required to obtain a permit from the IEPA by the end of the year, although hospitals are specifically exempt.