Lake County Facilities Emit the Same Cancer-Causing Chemicals as Sterigenics
Within the past two months, Chicago residents were horrified to find out a Sterigenics factory was polluting the Willowbrook area with ethylene oxide; a chemical the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) determined is “carcinogenic to humans.” Unfortunately, we recently found out that Willowbrook is not the only local community where residents must wonder whether the air they breathe may be contributing to serious health risks. The EPA’s national air toxics assessment shows areas in Lake County where cancer risks are more than five times the national average.
Approximately 40 miles north of Sterigenics, more than 19,000 people live in a community with air contaminated by a Medline Industries facility near Interstate 94 in Waukegan. But another facility not mentioned on the EPA’s toxic air pollution map may pose an even greater risk to nearly 23,000 people living near the chemical plant. Vantage Specialty Chemicals, in Gurnee, released 6,412 pounds of ethylene oxide in 2014, more than either Sterigenics or Medline during the same period.
Government officials stated “the only reason [Vantage Specialty] isn’t on the map is that someone at the state level failed to provide the facility’s ethylene oxide emissions for the U.S. EPA’s latest estimate of cancer risks, known as the National Air Toxics Assessment.” The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is currently working with its federal counterpart to determine what steps should be taken.
Due to the alarming rate of pollution, the EPA noted the facility poses a heightened cancer risk. A Chicago Tribune analysis of EPA data shows “there are 109 census tracts out of 73,057 nationwide with cancer risks exceeding the rate considered acceptable by the agency.” Seven of these high-risk tracts surround Sterigenics in Willowbrook, while four are near Medline in Waukegan. The lack of reporting has potentially resulted in areas around Vantage Specialty avoiding this list, and the EPA does not plan to immediately recalculate cancer risks based on the missing data.
What are the Health Risks of Ethylene Oxide Exposure?
A United States National Cancer Institute report found that “[e]xposure to (ethylene oxide) is highly irritating to the eyes, skin and respiratory tract, induces nausea and vomiting and causes central nervous system depression.” Ethylene oxide is a mutagenic in humans and chronic exposure is associated with increased risk of:
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Breast cancer
- Stomach cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
State officials have begun acting to provide greater protection to residents. An Illinois senator introduced legislation to create new notification protocols to alert residents of air emission leaks. But while such changes could help limit future exposure, many residents are concerned about unknowingly living with a high-cancer risk due to ethylene oxide exposure. One resident who grew up in the area stated she “had no idea what these facilities are putting into the air,” while another wants “to hear more about this from our elected officials.”
The lack of warning is concerning. While Sterigenics grabbed national headlines, “more than twice as many people in Lake County [are] breathing pollution that increases the long-term risks of breast cancer and lymphomas at extremely low levels.”