The Waukegan City Council threw its support behind a call from two area U.S. senators and a congressman to investigate carcinogenic gases being released from two Lake County facilities, but some Waukegan residents are asking city officials to do more.
The move follows a Chicago Tribune investigation that found more than 42,000 people in Lake County are breathing dangerous ethylene oxide gas emitted by a chemical plant owned by Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee and a medical products distributor called Medline Industries in Waukegan.
The letter sent Nov. 9 by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth and U.S. Rep. Bradley Schneider asks that the U.S. EPA evaluate the current public risk and adopt any and all regulations needed to protect public health.
Waukegan Mayor Sam Cunningham said his plan is to wait for the EPA findings, which he wants to have assessed, potentially by an outside entity, so that the city can decide its next steps, including whether to challenge the EPA’s conclusions. Cunningham said the city has not been provided a timeline on when that report would be available.
A handful of residents spoke about the issue at Monday ‘s City Council meeting, expressing their disappointment that they hadn’t been informed of the risks sooner, and sharing the difficulty they’ve had getting answers to their questions.
“Nobody willingly lives in these danger zones and we shouldn’t have to move again to escape them,” said one resident, who said she moved to Waukegan in 2014.
Waukegan city officials should not rely solely on the U.S. and Illinois environmental protection agencies in addressing the situation and instead use its home-rule authority to force Medline to make changes, another resident said.
The issue is less a legal one and more a logistical one, city attorney Bob Long said. The city could potentially use it home-rule authority, but regulating air emissions would require expertise and equipment the city doesn’t have.
The Lake County Health Department doesn’t have authority to regulate emissions, said Executive Director Mark Pfister, who spoke at the meeting.
The department’s job is to ensure that the U.S. and Illinois environmental protection agencies are “protecting the health of Lake County residents,” Pfister said.
Pfister said the Lake County Health Department learned Nov. 2 of the concerns over ethylene oxide emissions from Vantage Specialty Chemicals and Medline Industries. Since then, department staff has been investigating the matter and discussing it with state and federal officials, he said.
Both companies have informed EPA officials that they will voluntarily install additional controls to reduce their ethylene oxide emissions, which will require an Illinois EPA permit before they can be installed, Pfister said.
“Additional abatement technology” will be installed as early as the first quarter of 2019 to reduce ethylene oxide emissions from the back vents at the Waukegan facility, Lara Simmons, Medline Group president of quality assurance and regulatory affairs, said in a written statement.
A company spokeswoman was not able to immediately respond to follow-up question asking what technology that would be, whether the back vents are the primary source of emissions and whether any other steps are being taken with other sources of emissions.
The company also continues to invest in equipment to ensure the facilities are as safe as possible, and to monitor advances in sterilization methods, Simmons said.
EPA officials also told county officials that it will set up a webpage specifically geared toward Lake County residents that will provide updates on the investigation, future ethylene oxide interventions and monitoring results. The website went live Wednesday.
Waukegan Ald. Ann Taylor, whose ward includes the Medline facility, said she is also concerned but has been happy with the way the Health Department has been approaching the issue.
“I want to be careful how we handle this,” Taylor said. “I realize with Medline, the product they are making (is) for sterilization. I want to make sure that we don’t end up closing them down or fining to the point that we then cause a health crisis and they don’t have a sterile way to get things get done.”
Ethylene oxide is a colorless gas that is used to sterilize equipment, which is what Medline uses it for, or to make other products, how Vantage uses it, Pfister said.
Prior to December 2016, ethylene oxide was classified by the EPA as a “potential carcinogen” based on risk modeling, Pfister said. It’s now classified as a human carcinogen.
Long-term exposure to ethylene oxide can irritate eyes, skin, nose, throat and lungs, and harm the brain and nervous system, leading to headaches, memory loss and numbness, according to the EPA.
Studies show that exposure to elevated levels of ethylene oxide over many years increases the risk of cancers, particularly white blood cell and breast cancer, according to the EPA.
Simmons pointed in her statement to 13 studies of sterilant and chemical workers conducted over 40 years in five countries, which showed no pattern of increase for any type of cancer.
When asked whether Medline disputed the EPA’s conclusion that ethylene oxide causes cancer, Simmons released a follow-up statement saying the scientific community, “has strongly criticized” the EPA report that led to ethylene oxide being classified a carcinogen, pointing in particular to M. Jane Teta, an epidemiologist with expertise in ethylene oxide, who has been retained by Medline as an independent consultant.
Teta has said the report is misleading and greatly exaggerates the health risk, according to Simmons’s written statement.
The company is calling for the National Academy of Sciences, a private nonprofit established by Congress, to review the report and provide recommendations.
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November 21, 2018 at 05:12PM