High cancer risk in southeast DuPage County linked to company co-owned by Rauner’s former firm


Two low-slung industrial buildings, tucked behind a Target store in west suburban Willowbrook, are about as nondescript as they come. For years, they have been home to Sterigenics International, a company that has quietly gone about its business of fumigating medical instruments, pharmaceutical drugs and food to kill bacteria and pests.

But a new federal study is putting a bright spotlight on the company, finding that people living nearby face some the nation’s highest cancer risks from toxic air pollution.

A gas used by the company, ethylene oxide, is far more dangerous than previously thought, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In one census tract near the plant, the EPA estimates the risk of cancer is more than nine times the national average.

Another federal agency concluded the cancer risks could be significantly higher.

Sterigenics is now owned by Sotera, a Cleveland-based venture between GTCR and Warburg Pincus, another private equity firm that acquired a majority stake in 2015.

The company’s website says its name was inspired by Soteria, the Greek goddess of safety, “and reflects the Company’s unwavering commitment to global health.”

Neither the Rauner campaign nor the governor’s office answered detailed questions from the Tribune.

The area is represented in Springfield by House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, a Darien Republican who said he is working with state and federal officials “to ascertain the facts and formulate next steps to ensure the safety of Willowbrook residents and the residents of surrounding communities.”

Reevaluating hazards posed by toxic chemicals often leads to conclusions that widely used substances are more dangerous than once thought. Yet the federal government can take years to publish risk assessments based on the latest science, largely because of industry opposition and bureaucratic inertia.

When a federal judge ordered the EPA to update its ethylene oxide regulations during the mid-2000s, the agency said it needed to wait for a new assessment of the dangers — the one finally published in 2016.

Regulations on toxic substances are even more difficult to enact. For instance, the government still hasn’t banned asbestos, a well-documented carcinogen that has killed thousands of people who suffered devastating lung diseases.

President Donald Trump’s first budget would have gutted the EPA program that produced the new ethylene oxide assessment, and the administration has moved to roll back or delay several environment, health and safety regulations. The Republican-controlled Congress also has moved several times to eliminate funding for the chemical assessment program, though for now it continues to operate.


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August 27, 2018 at 08:09PM

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