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State

Trump EPA confirms Sterigenics is emitting alarming levels of cancer-causing gas in Willowbrook but still won't take action

Sterigenics is still venting ethylene oxide into neighborhoods surrounding its facility in west suburban Willowbrook, according to federal testing that revealed spikes of the volatile, cancer-causing gas higher than concentrations detected before the company installed new pollution-control equipment last year.

But a top Trump administration official told residents on Tuesday that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t have enough evidence to take action against the company.

Nor is the agency any closer to answering urgent questions about long-term health dangers from toxic pollution the company’s neighbors have been breathing for more than three decades, most of that time unknowingly.

William Wehrum, the administration’s top air official, said the EPA is sticking to its plan to re-evaluate cancer risks in the Willowbrook area after collecting more air samples during the next month and combining the results with computer modeling of pollution emitted by Sterigenics.

Samples analyzed so far suggest that on some days the air monitors are registering other, unknown sources of ethylene oxide, Wehrum said, meaning the agency needs more time to assess the dangers, determine the extent Sterigenics is responsible and figure out how to limit future emissions.

“Does this somehow exonerate Sterigenics? The answer is no,” Wehrum said on a conference call dominated by residents urging the EPA to shut down the facility and questioning if the Trump administration is backing away from promises made before the November elections. “We think it’s really important to gather enough information so we can make valid and supportable decisions.”

The Chicago Tribune first reported that EPA officials began taking a closer look at Sterigenics in late 2017 after determining the cancer risks in one census tract near the facility are more than nine times higher than the national average. By the time the EPA quietly posted its findings online in August, another federal agency had estimated the effects could be significantly more dire, prompting an intense public outcry and demands from local, state and federal lawmakers for an in-depth investigation.

Based on wind patterns during days when the EPA collected air samples in late November and December, there is no doubt Sterigenics is exposing residents to higher-than-normal levels of ethylene oxide, Wehrum and other agency officials said.

One example is Dec. 26, when winds from the southeast blew pollution from Sterigenics toward monitors at Willowbrook Village Hall across the street; a neighborhood nearly 400 yards west of the facility; and Hinsdale South High School, about a half-mile northwest. The highest concentrations of ethylene oxide ranged from 10.5 micrograms per cubic meter of air at Village Hall to 1.17 at the west neighborhood site to 0.566 at the high school monitor.

During the EPA’s first round of testing in May, a month before Sterigenics installed additional pollution controls, the highest level recorded in the complex of commercial and government buildings near Sterigenics was 9.1 micrograms per cubic meter.

To put those numbers in perspective, regular exposure to 2.1 micrograms of ethylene oxide per cubic meter of air could trigger more than 6 cases of cancer for every 1,000 people exposed, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Federal regulators generally target polluters when local cancer risks are greater than 100 in a million.

“The situation has always been a grave one,” the Stop Sterigenics community group said in a statement. “It is time for our federal, state and local government to put the health of the people in front of corporate greed.”

Oak Brook-based Sterigenics, owned in part by a private equity firm founded by former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical instruments, pharmaceutical drugs, spices and food.

Shortly after the public first learned about the company’s pollution, Sterigenics paid Google to list pro-industry websites at the top of search results for information about ethylene oxide. Using an abbreviation for the chemical, one of the sites claims “EO exists naturally all around us” and doesn’t pose health risks at concentrations found near its Willowbrook facility.

On Tuesday, the company had a more muted response to the EPA’s latest round of air sampling in the community.

“We acknowledge that there are several readings close to the Willowbrook facility that are higher than background (normally occurring) levels,” the company said in a statement. “It remains premature to draw conclusions about long-term health risks from the data.”

While the EPA has limited its air sampling to Willowbrook, the investigation has national ramifications.

A Tribune analysis of agency data found that more than 600,000 Americans in 12 states face similar risks because they live close to sources of ethylene oxide, including chemical plants, medical device manufacturers and sterilization facilities owned by Sterigenics or its competitors.

In Illinois alone, nearly 70,000 people live near Sterigenics or two Lake County facilities: Medline Industries in Waukegan and Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee.

Michael Koerber, a career EPA official overseeing the testing in Willowbrook, said the agency is scrambling to improve how it measures and regulates ethylene oxide. Federal, state and local lawmakers, along with Illinois Atty. Gen. Kwame Raoul and Robert Berlin, the DuPage County state’s attorney, aren’t willing to wait.

Lawmakers from both political parties have called for the immediate shutdown of Sterigenics, noting that safer sterilization methods are available. Meanwhile, the EPA’s inspector general has launched a probe of the Trump administration’s actions in response to concerns raised by U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth and three fellow Democrats: Reps. Bill Foster, Dan Lipinski and Brad Schneider.

“The citizens of DuPage County should not have to endure this exposure to a known human carcinogen,” Raoul and Berlin said in a statement Tuesday. “We will exercise all available legal authority to protect the community.”

mhawthorne@chicagotribune.com

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©2019 the Chicago Tribune

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