Congressional Dems renew call for revised EtO standards

Letter to EPA head says agency is ‘taking too long’

U.S. Reps. Sean Casten and Bill Foster are scientists who’ve joined in the call for the EPA to revise its acceptable limits on EtO emissions. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

U.S. Reps. Sean Casten and Bill Foster are scientists who’ve joined in the call for the EPA to revise its acceptable limits on EtO emissions. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

Congressional Democrats renewed their call Tuesday for new federal standards on ethylene oxide to be established, long after the chemical used in sterilization was declared to be carcinogenic.

EtO is in the news again after Sterigenics touted a consent order last week that could potentially reopen the Willowbrook facilityshut down in February over concerns about an elevated cancer risk in the southwest Chicago suburbs surrounding the sterilization firm.

Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin and Reps. Bill Foster, Brad Schneider, Sean Casten, and Dan Lipinski cited that potential reopening in a letter sent Tuesday to Enivironmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler calling for new safety standards to be set for acceptable limits on EtO.

The Obama administration declared EtO to be a carcinogen late in 2016 before President Trump took office, but under the Trump administration the EPA has never revised the acceptable levels of EtO emissions.

“The EPA is taking too long to move forward with an action to protect communities surrounding ethylene-oxide facilities,” the members of Congress wrote in their letter. “Even after elevated levels of EtO emissions have been found around the facilities in Willowbrook and Lake County, the EPA has been slow to respond to this public health crisis.”

The same group of legislators called for the EPA to set new limits last November, and they were joined in May by U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood in calling for the EPA to conduct tests at all businesses using EtO in the Great Lakes region, including Medline Industries and Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Lake County as well as Sterigenics.

According to the letter sent Tuesday, the EPA determined in 2016 that “EtO has an inhalation cancer risk that is 30 times higher than was previously estimated.” It added that EPA testing outside Sterigenics “showed concentrations as high as 880 times what is deemed acceptable.” It criticized the EPA for not conducting similar tests in Lake County, where tests conducted by an independent firm “showed concentrations as high as 300 times the acceptable limit.”

Sterigenics, Medline, and Vantage have all argued that they’ve met acceptable standards under the permits they were granted — standards dating back to before EtO was formally declared a carcinogen.

Stop Sterigenics, a grassroots group formed to halt EtO emissions, has repeatedly declared, “There is no acceptable level of ethylene oxide.”

After the Illinois EPA dragged its feet in dealing with Sterigenics last year under former Gov. Rauner, the IEPA issued a seal order on the firm’s use of EtO in February, a month after Gov. Pritzker took office. The General Assembly set new state standards on EtO this spring, and Pritzker signed them into law last month, calling it a “tourniquet” on EtO emissions.

The deal agreed to by Sterigenics to meet those standards and reopen caught Pritzker and state legislators by surprise, but House Minority Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs combatted that with a court brief filed this week, saying, “Sterigenics has lost the right to operate in our community.” Durkin has said he’ll potentially tighten the new regulations with additional legislation, and Pritzker has said he’d even consider calling a special session of the General Assembly to get that done.

On Wednesday, a DuPage County judge granted four towns — Darien, Burr Ridge, Hindsdale, and Willowbrook — the right to join legal proceedings on whether Sterigenics will be allowed to reopen, and gave them a month to file briefs in the matter, thus delaying any reopening until at least September.

According to a news release put out Wednesday by the grassroots group Stop EtO in Lake County, the latest testing by the county Health Department continued to find readings “unacceptably high.” Stating, “The LCHD testing results confirm that Medline and Vantage pose a public health crisis in our community,” the group made plans for a protest rally calling for their closure at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the corner of Grand Avenue and Dilleys Road in Gurnee.

Stop Sterigenics also announced it would hold a protest at 5:15 p.m. Aug. 1 at Ashton Place Banquets, 341 75th St., Willowbrook.