Famed architect Mies van der Rohe preached “less is more,” but that doesn’t apply to data-gathering — particularly when that data involves carcinogenic pollutants. Repeated air testing around the Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook showed elevated levels of ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing chemical. That led to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s decision to effectively order the plant’s shutdown in February.
After the closure, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency inspectors conducted another round of air monitoring to determine ethylene oxide levels in the absence of emissions. As the Tribune’s Michael Hawthorne reports, average ethylene oxide levels after the plant shut down were at least 50 percent lower than they had been. At testing sites closest to Sterigenics, the levels were more than 90 percent lower.
That brings us to Lake County, where some residents are wondering Hey, what about us?
Lake County has its own worries about ethylene oxide. Two plants emit the chemical into the air under a legal permit: Medline Industries in Waukegan and Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee. Medline uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical supplies. Vantage uses it in the manufacture of household products such as soap and shampoo.
As Hawthorne has reported, based on government reports, communities surrounding the Medline and Vantage facilities face some of the highest long-term cancer risks in the U.S., potentially because of pollutants in the air. In one area near Medline, the risk was nearly five times higher than the national average.
Yet both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois EPA are balking at conducting air monitoring tests for ethylene oxide emissions in Lake County, the Lake County News-Sun reported. The agencies don’t think the risk is the same in Lake County as it is in DuPage, the paper reported.
How will regulators know unless they test?
Recall that it was additional testing done around Sterigenics in Willowbrook in November and December that preceded the decision by Pritzker and the Illinois EPA to suspend the plant’s use of ethylene oxide, which the company uses to sterilize medical instruments, pharmaceuticals and food. Those tests detected apparent spikes in ethylene oxide even higher than levels detected before the company took additional pollution control measures last summer.
Air monitoring helps federal and state EPA officials, as well as people who live near such plants, to gauge the level of health risk created by the emissions. If tests show no serious health threat, they should allay residents’ fears. Or, if levels of ethylene oxide are worrisome, the tests could prompt regulators to act.
But balking at conducting tests leaves everyone in the dark. That’s foolhardy, particularly when you consider what’s already known about ethylene oxide. The federal government classifies it as a known carcinogen. Chronic exposure is linked to leukemia, breast cancer and lymphomas. Some data suggest chronic exposure can also impair cognitive function.
The Lake County Health Department now says it plans to do its own testing. Lake County taxpayers shouldn’t have to bear that expense. And the county shouldn’t have to take on a job that federal and state EPA inspectors already have the expertise for.
People who live near the Lake County plants have the same worries about ethylene oxide as the residents of southeast DuPage County. They want to know what’s in the air around them. They want to know it’s safe for their kids to walk to school, to play at a local park. And they want the same attention to the problem that residents in DuPage County received. Given that it’s about the air they breathe, testing that air isn’t a big ask.
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March 29, 2019 at 04:03PM