Toxic ethylene oxide emissions released into the air by Sterigenics International put the health and well-being of the public at risk. It is suspected that these emissions could be the cause of high cancer rates in Willowbrook and surrounding communities. Here’s what workers and people who live in this area need to know.
Who is Sterigenics International?
Sterigenics International is a Willowbrook-based company that specializes in product sterilization services. The company stores ethylene oxide in two locations where it is used to sterilize medical equipment, food and spice products, and pharmaceuticals. This dangerous gas is sprayed into sealed units during the sterilization process. The company is required to report to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
According to a report from the Agency, Sterigenics International has been releasing ethylene oxide gas into the air at levels that could endanger the health of the public and workers who are exposed. The company has been releasing this gas since 1984.
During the late 1990s, after a series of explosions at other sterilization plants, Sterigenics International and other companies were advised to overhaul their methods of handling the very volatile, flammable and dangerous ethylene oxide gas. Instead of following this recommendation, the sterilization companies were able to lobby for relaxed clean air regulations that would allow them to bypass pollution-control equipment. The result was that this dangerous gas was vented directly into the air. While some states later required that all sterilization plant emissions be filtered, Illinois continued to allow Sterigenics to release the uncontrolled gas into the surrounding communities for almost twenty years.
Until earlier this year, Sterigenics was able to continue releasing the gas without receiving Agency or public scrutiny. That is until an analysis performed by the Environmental Protection Agency found that residential areas surrounding the company within a 10-mile radius joined the ranks of communities where long-term risks of cancer caused by breathing toxic air pollution exceeded federal guidelines.
Shortly before the EPA’s report was released to the public in August, Sterigenics moved to redirect its vents that had been spewing ethylene oxide gas into the air into pollution controls. However, this effort falls short of what needs to be done to protect the public from the health dangers of the gas.
Why is Ethylene Oxide So Dangerous?
Ethylene oxide has been a known carcinogen since 2000. Even at low levels, it increases the long-term risk of developing breast cancer and lymphomas. In one of the tested areas, the estimated risk of developing cancer is nine times the national average. Non-cancer effects are also associated with long-term exposure and include cognitive and motor impairment after five to six and a half years of exposure.
The gas has been known to cause other serious health issues with just short-term exposure, including:
- Neurological effects, such as headaches, fatigue, dizziness, muscle weakness, memory loss, and nausea
- Gastrointestinal effects, such as stomach spasms, vomiting, and diarrhea
- Respiratory irritation, including shortness of breath, sinuses issues, coughing, and wheezing
- Excessive dry mouth
- Skin rashes
Lawmakers both in the federal and state and Sterigenics were well-aware of these risks before the report was released. But even with the gas going through pollution controls, the company can still legally emit up to 36,400 pounds of the chemical each year. Between 1994 and 2017, more than 254,000 pounds were already released into the air.
Because ethylene oxide is so potent, there is concern about its use, especially when it is released into surrounding residential areas. Almost 20,000 people live within one mile of one of Sterigenics’ locations. There are also numerous schools, day care centers and shopping centers where the risk of exposure is also high.
What Is the EPA Doing to Protect Residents?
There is a reason to believe that the EPA needs to do a better job when it comes to regulating the release of ethylene oxide into the air. When it comes to protecting the health of people in the communities surrounding the two Sterigenics International locations, the local, state and federal officials need to work together to follow up on and to continue monitoring the company’s progress in reducing emissions.
During the past summer, Sterigenics has constructed equipment to reduce emissions. Follow up testing needs to be done to measure emissions to ensure the new efforts are working as recommended in the EPA’s report’s recommendations.
Residents in the affected areas need to remain vigilant and pay attention to any changes in their health that could be signs of ethylene oxide exposure. Those who suffer injuries because of exposure to the dangerous case may be able to seek compensation for their injuries.