Residents of a Chicago suburb are demanding answers and calling for greater regulation of the chemical ethylene oxide after many of them contracted cancer and other serious illnesses following decades of exposure to the gas. And now elected officials in the state of Illinois are making the same arguments.
The Environmental Protection Agency has said that the city, Willowbrook, is battling high rates of cancer as a result of toxic air pollution, one of the few communities in the country to merit that dubious distinction. Willowbrook is home to a factory run by Sterigenics, a company that provides sterilization services for a range of companies in the healthcare field.
That factory pumps out ethylene oxide as part of its sterilization work. And while chemical companies have fought hard over the years to muddy the science, it has become apparent that ethylene oxide represents a significant danger to those living and working near it.
What is Ethylene Oxide? Why Is It Dangerous?
As the Chicago Tribune puts it, “Ethylene oxide is a widely used chemical made in the US by some of the industry’s global giants, including Dow Chemical, Huntsman, Shell and Union Carbide.”
Ethylene oxide is often used in the production of other chemicals. However, many companies – including Sterigenics – use ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment and pharmaceuticals. The chemical is undeniably quite good at killing bacteria and sterilizing equipment.
However, the chemical is also exceptionally dangerous to humans exposed to it. The EPA declared ethylene oxide a human carcinogen in 2000, but industry officials and government regulators have known the dangers of the chemical since the 1970’s at the latest. As the Tribune reports, Illinois regulators wrote in the mid-80’s that residents in Willowbrook would breathe in concentrations of ethylene oxide that were up to 14 times higher than was considered safe at the time.
A Tangled Regulatory History
The chemical industry has followed an old playbook in attempting to discredit the science linking ethylene oxide to human sickness.
In 2016, the EPA issued a report confirming its 2000 findings related to the carcinogenic qualities of ethylene oxide. However, the American Chemistry Council is asking the EPA to re-consider that designation.
The ACC claims that the EPA is ignoring an exculpatory 2006 study that raised questions about the actual danger faced by workers exposed to ethylene oxide. However, the 2006 study was funded by Union Carbide, and unaffiliated research scientists were dismissive of its design.
The EPA’s estimate of toxic air pollution-driven cancer risks, known as the National Air Toxics Assessment, listed seven census tracts surrounding the Sterigenics facility in Willowbrook as being in particular danger. This, in an assessment that only listed a grand total of 109 such census tracts in the country.
Fights over ethylene oxide are not new. In 1981, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration received a petition asking OSHA to dramatically reduce the amount of ethylene oxide workers would be exposed to. OSHA, then staffed with strongly anti-government ideologues appointed by the new Ronald Reagan administration, denied the petition. The agency would only back down after years of legal battles.
Bi-Partisan Calls for Change
Illinois’ two Senators, Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth (both Democrats), have introduced legislation requiring the EPA to toughen regulatory standards for sterilization companies. They have been joined by three of their fellow Democrats in the state’s House delegation – Dan Lipinski, Bill Foster and Brad Schneider.
And in the state capitol, two prominent DuPage County Republicans – Senator John Curran and Representative Jim Durkin – have introduced a bill requiring sterilization companies in the state to gradually stop the use of ethylene oxide. Finally, the DuPage County state’s attorney has joined with the Illinois attorney general in suing to have the Sterigenics facility shut down as a public nuisance.
Industry officials are not going down without a fight. Sterigenics and other sterilization companies argue that ethylene oxide is by far the best way of sterilizing medical equipment, claiming that their processes have saved “millions of lives” through the prevention of infection.
And the industry dispatched a former director of epidemiology at Union Carbide to tell state legislative committees that the EPA’s assessment of ethylene oxide’s danger was “an abuse of science.”
Americans have every reason to assume the Trump Administration’s EPA will act as it consistently has since the president was inaugurated in 2017 – by adhering to a strict deregulatory agenda and doing the bidding of large polluters. However, Trump Administration officials have insisted they are seriously considering a stricter approach to ethylene oxide. Time will tell if that turns out to be the case.
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