People in DuPage County deserve to breathe easy. The Sterigenics facility in Willowbrook that has been emitting a cancer-causing chemical should be shut down until it can be proven it is absolutely safe.
The plant has been spewing hazardous ethylene oxide into the air of southeast DuPage County communities since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until May that a branch of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, following up on signs of an unexplained “chronic” health risk, found out just how bad the risk was.
Almost a half century after the first Earth Day, we should be doing a lot better than this. People raising their families and going about their daily lives had no idea they were breathing ethylene oxide. Only now are reports emerging of deaths from unusual diseases among people who lived near the facility.
We need immediate testing of the fumes that come out of Sterigenics’ stacks as well as of the air around the plant, as Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is calling for.
We also need to stop keeping important information from the public. It was back in May that a federal public health agency — the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry — discovered the high levels of ethylene oxide, but the public was told nothing until July.
Also, according to Madigan, the U.S. EPA pulled public information documents about Sterigenics off its website. In a Sept. 17 letter, she wrote, “The void left by the U.S. EPA providing NO community relations information is causing significant anxiety to hundreds, if not thousands, of Illinois residents concerned about their health and that of their children and loved ones.”
How is this happening in 2018? We would expect federal and state environmental agencies to be rushing to inform the public and ensure that we all are safe.
Sterigenics uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical instruments, food and drugs. In July, after a meeting with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the company installed “scrubbers” to remove much of the perilous gas from its emissions. That’s a step forward, but why weren’t scrubbers installed years ago? Why wasn’t the company waving red flags from the start?
Sterigenics says the scrubbers are 90 percent effective, but no tests by any independent agency have been made public.
In a meeting on Tuesday with the Sun-Times Editorial Board, Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin said he would favor “a pause” in Sterigenics’ operations while studies are conducted to assess the plant’s health threat to the community. Sterigenics must, at minimum, he said, meet federal safety standards.
Other local officials are calling for a shutdown of the facility, which is near schools and residential areas. So are some neighborhood residents, including former White Sox star and Hall of Famer Jim Thome and his family, who moved to Willowbrook seven years ago.
In a turnaround after weeks of downplaying the risks, even Gov. Bruce Rauner, whose former private equity firm co-owned Sterigenics, has joined them in calling for Madigan to seek a court order to shutter the plant until testing and studies show it is safe.
Madigan says air tests must be done now to provide her office the evidence it needs to go to court to say there is immediate danger and that Sterigenics should be shut down. But the Illinois EPA has been uncooperative, including to refusing to turn over documents, she said.
That’s unconscionable. For whom is the Illinois EPA working?
In a crisis like this, where average people are suddenly worried — entirely legitimately — that the air they breathe could be killing them, we need all hands on deck from government at every level.
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