Sterigenics, Ethylene Oxide and Human Health


Jen Walling
Executive Director, Illinois Environmental Council

Without a family history of breast cancer, no one can pinpoint how my mother developed cancer. I was ten years old at the time, and as everyone who has gone through a similar experience knows, the diagnosis was incredibly hard on my family. The experience made enough of an impression on me that I have made it my life’s work to protect public health by creating and enforcing regulations on toxins and carcinogens.

I grew up in Darien, Illinois, which, until recently, did not seem related to my mom’s illness. But a new finding has hit very close to home: ethylene oxide, a chemical used in sterilization, was found to be highly carcinogenic with no safe level of human exposure, and a facility that has emitted ethylene oxide for over three decades, Sterigenics, is located less than 2 miles from the home I grew up in and that my mom got sick in.

While I was horrified to learn about Sterigenics – what if it made my mom sick? – the public reaction to what’s emerged has made me more deeply consider the environmental injustices in communities like the Southeast side of Chicago and Little Village that I’ve become familiar with through my work.

News of a cancer risk in a non-industrial, wealthy community like Willowbrook, which neighbors Darien and is where Sterigenics is based, has led to widespread attention and uproar, leading to Governor Rauner calling on the facility to cease operations. Yet on the Southeast side, piles of toxic materials have contaminated the community with manganese and other toxins for years with far less action taken. The Little Village community worked for years to close a toxic coal plant that may now be replaced by a transportation hub that will generate huge amounts of diesel truck emissions.

I hope that Willowbrook, the Southeast side and Little Village residents are successful in removing and keeping pollution out of their communities. It is so obvious that it’s strange to have to write it, but these are strange times: regardless of income level or skin color, no one should have to breathe air polluted with emissions that cause cancer.

While the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has referred the Sterigenics case to the Attorney General, the unfortunate truth is that the Attorney General can only enforce laws as they are written, and Illinois’ laws are ill-equipped to protect residents from toxic materials. We can change that. We need to change that.

Starting today, we should take the following steps:

  • IEPA and Governor Rauner should immediately revoke the Sterigenics permit using public health rules under the Illinois Environmental Protection Act. Additionally, the Illinois legislature should act during veto session to strengthen the rules that allow permit revocation of an air permit.
  • IEPA must immediately draft rules to strengthen ethylene oxide emission limits under an emergency rulemaking. Should the IEPA fail to create rules or introduce ineffective rules, the state legislature should pass legislation requiring stronger regulations.
  • The legislature should pass legislation providing IEPA the authority to reopen an air pollution permit in specific instances where the carcinogenicity of an emitted chemical has been increased such that the allowable levels of emissions are found to create a public health hazard.
  • Ethylene oxide itself should be regulated more stringently at all facilities. Ethylene oxide use should be limited to medical technology sterilization and should only be used when there is no substitute available, regardless of the financial cost to the permit holder. Regulation of Ethylene Oxide should account for short and long-term exposure to both employees of the facility and members of the surrounding community.

Of course, I cannot tie my mother’s cancer to emissions from Sterigenics. But we do know that ethylene oxide does cause cancer at such a rate that no level of exposure has been identified as safe. This knowledge comes with a responsibility to take action.

I hope that this event and stories like my moms are enough for our leaders to make sure that Illinois’ laws must prioritize the reduction of carcinogens in every community.

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