Another round of air monitoring near Sterigenics detected alarming levels of cancer-causing ethylene oxide near the west suburban facility, but federal officials cautioned Friday that they need more information before deciding if neighboring communities are still at risk.
Spikes of the highly toxic chemical were detected in samples collected during three days in mid-November at Willowbrook Village Hall and a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warehouse, according to results posted online by the EPA. Both monitors are close to a pair of buildings off Illinois Route 83 and Interstate 55 where Sterigenics uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment, pharmaceutical drugs and food.
The highest average level of ethylene oxide detected during a 24-hour period was 6.62 micrograms per cubic meter of air, more than three times greater than the amount that federal officials relied on earlier this year to calculate potential cancer risks in the area.
However, six other monitors — located at schools and in nearby residential areas — did not register measurable amounts of ethylene oxide during the same testing period, the EPA reported.
The latest results are the first posted since the company installed new equipment intended to reduce the amount of ethylene oxide leaking from its sterilization chambers. EPA officials said they won’t be able to determine if neighbors are in danger until the agency has completed three months of community air monitoring and plugs the results into its computer modeling of pollution emitted by Sterigenics.
Though the new results aren’t conclusive, they undercut the company’s attempts to discredit the ongoing EPA investigation.
“For months, we’ve been told that Sterigenics was lowering emissions to levels so low they would be undetectable,” the Stop Sterigenics community group said in a Facebook post. “That is clearly untrue.”
EPA officials began taking a closer look at Sterigenics in late 2017 after determining that Willowbrook and surrounding communities are among just a few dozen nationwide with unacceptable cancer risks from breathing toxic air pollution. Based on the amount of ethylene oxide the company reported it released in 2014, the EPA estimated the risk of cancer in one census tract near the facility is more than nine times the national average.
In May, three months before the EPA informed community leaders about the pollution problems, the agency collected its first air samples near the sterilization facility. The results suggested the health dangers could be exponentially worse than initially estimated — more than 6 cases of cancer for every 1,000 people exposed.
Amid public outrage and under intense pressure from local and statewide officials, the EPA dropped another potential bombshell the day before Thanksgiving: It might have overestimated the amount of ethylene oxide in its May air samples by failing to discern a related chemical in its analysis.
“EPA disclosure … clearly reveals report was based on flawed data,” Sterigenics said in a news release posted on its website and promoted in Google searches.
The latest air samples were analyzed using a method that ensures the EPA is properly measuring ethylene oxide, also known as EtO. At least one public official said the results show why the government needs to take more aggressive action against the company.
“We now have confirmation that despite Sterigenics’ efforts to limit and scrub EtO emissions, the dangerous toxin remains a public health risk for the citizens of Willowbrook and surrounding communities,” said U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, one of several Illinois Democrats in Congress who is pushing for more stringent regulations and an independent investigation of the EPA’s response to the pollution problems.
What happens next is an important test for the Trump EPA, where political appointees are focused on the president’s campaign pledge to eliminate anti-pollution regulations. William Wehrum, the administration’s top air official, told a community forum in Willowbrook last week that the agency plans to overhaul its rules for commercial sterilization facilities, which haven’t been updated since 1994. But the timing and details remain unclear.
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December 7, 2018 at 02:55PM