High Cancer Risk in Willowbrook Linked to Factory Emissions
Environmental contamination cases have been springing up across the country, alerting communities to the grim reality that the air they breathe and the water they drink may be contributing to serious health risks. Often the source of the contamination has been operating for decades, leeching toxic chemicals into the environment while residents are oblivious to the dangers that surround them. This is the reality residents of a town in the Chicago suburbs find themselves in, as a recent report revealed a high cancer risk in Willowbrook is linked to factory emissions.
The report from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) evaluated the potential health impacts from emissions of Ethylene Oxide, a chemical that has been determined to be “carcinogenic to humans” by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The report found that Sterigenics International, which has operated two factories in Willowbrook for over 30 years, uses the chemical to sterilize medical equipment and other products. The ATSDR used measurements and modeled data to visualize the 5-year average exposure estimates of Ethylene Oxide concentration detected around Sterigenics factories.
In concluding its findings, the ATSDR recommended that Sterigenics take immediate action to reduce emissions and encouraged the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) to investigate whether there are elevated cases of cancer in the population surrounding the Sterigenics facilities.
Though the IDPH has not released its assessment, there is significant data pointing to high cancer risk in Willowbrook. The 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment map shows Willowbrook has a cancer risk of 300 in a million; higher than anywhere else in the Chicagoland area and ten times higher than the vast majority of census tracts, which ran a risk of 30 in a million.
What are the Health Risks of Ethylene Oxide Exposure?
A U.S. National Cancer Institute report finds that “Exposure to (ethylene oxide) is highly irritating to the eyes, skin and respiratory tract, induces nausea and vomiting and causes central nervous system depression.” In addition, Ethylene Oxide is mutagenic in humans, and chronic exposure is associated with increased risks of:
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma
- Breast Cancer
- Stomach Cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
In response to the ATSDR report, local officials have begun acting to provide greater protections to residents. State Senator John Curran introduced legislation to create new notification protocols to better alert residents of air emission leaks. The legislation would also reopen Sterigenics’ current air permit, and force any facility exceeding the EPA’s standard Ethylene Oxide emission levels to immediately cease operations until sufficient changes are made to reduce emissions.
But while these changes would help to curb future emission exposure, many in the community are outraged and concerned about having unknowingly lived with a high cancer risk in Willowbrook due to Ethylene Oxide emissions. One resident summed up the concern at a recent town hall meeting:
“How many people that have lived in this area for 33 years know somebody or has cancer, has died from cancer, has Leukemia – please stand up…”