Government Sides with Sterigenics Over Ethylene Oxide Pollution in Willowbrook

Hundreds of Willowbrook residents filled a standing-room-only meeting last night. They came to hear their government explain whether their health is in danger due to the ethylene oxide pollution that a local company, Sterigenics, has been belching into their neighborhood for the last 30 years.

Ethylene oxide is a nasty carcinogen. But the people of Willowbrook had no idea that such a chemical even existed, let alone that it had been in their neighborhood for decades. Until last week.

Sterigenics has known–probably since the 1980’s–that it was causing ethylene oxide pollution in Willowbrook. So did government, or at least it should have known. Its job was to know. Hard to say what is worse: the government knowing about the ethylene oxide pollution for many years and doing nothing to protect the people of Willowbrook, or the government not knowing anything about the problem until just now.

In any event, the people with the most at stake, the people of Willowbrook–who live and work and go to school and raise families there–didn’t find out until last week. That’s when the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) issued a report labeling the ethylene oxide emissions from Sterigenics as a “public health hazard“.

Let those words sink in for a moment: “public health hazard”. This is not in some third world country, mind you, or in inner-city America, where this kind of pollution is typically found and ignored, and the people who don’t live in such places find comfort in looking the other way.

This is in suburban America, where the revelation that cancer-causing chemicals have been in the air for thirty years shatters the very image of what places like Willowbrook are thought to be: “safe”; “kid-friendly”; “where neighbors look out for each other”.

B.S. Turns out that the factory down the street (Sterigenics) has been threatening its suburban neighbors’ health for decades. And not telling them about it.

So, the frightened, angry, betrayed people of Willowbrook came to the public meeting, hoping to hear their government make some sense of all of this.

Instead, the people heard their government sound more like spokespeople for Sterigenics than public servants who are duty-bound to fight for the people who pay their salaries… the people of Willowbrook. Here’s what I mean:

  • The officials spoke as though they had just learned of how dangerous ethylene oxide really is. Which, if true, might justify their years of inaction. Except it’s not true. The fact is that ethylene oxide was designated in 1985–33 years ago– as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen“. Its suspected dangers to human health were no secret. And then in 2000, ethylene oxide was designated as even more dangerous–“known to be a human carcinogen“. Hard to pretend they didn’t know they were dealing with a chemical that doesn’t belong in the human body.
  • The public officials and Sterigenics staff at the meeting wanted to congratulate the company for installing–in 2018–technology to limit the amount of toxic ethylene oxide emissions. Setting aside the obvious fact that no company should ever be congratulated for trying to fix a problem that the company itself created, the fact that ethylene oxide’s potential dangers to human health were known three decades ago means that Sterigenics’ efforts to protect the residents’ health should have been put in place 30 years ago. Or else Sterigenics should not have been allowed to operate. Not in the middle of a suburb, for God’s sake.
  • So, rather than congratulate the company, the public officials should have been demanding that the company answer the peoples’ most important questions, such as: “When did you first know that ethylene oxide might cause cancer?” “If it wasn’t in 1985, why not?” “Why didn’t you install the emissions limiting technology as soon as you learned that ethylene oxide was even potentially dangerous to humans?” “Were you trying to save money?” “What were the levels of ethylene oxide emissions into Willowbrook during each of the last 30 years?” “If you really don’t know, why not?” “When will you be moving to a location more suitable for a polluting factory?”

Finally, this needs to be said: the public officials at the meeting, who tried desperately to pretend as though they care about protecting the people of Willowbrook, are instead polluter-friendly hacks who were installed in their jobs to protect polluters–and to eliminate and refuse to enforce environmental regulations aimed at protecting human health. I’m talking about EPA Region 5 (Chicago) administrator Cathy Stepp, and Illinois EPA Director Alec Messina. Each was put in the job by someone (Stepp, by President Trump and Messina, by Governor Rauner) with an agenda of destroying environmental regulations, knowing full well that the price to be paid would be the health of the people of the United States and Illinois.

So, it’s no surprise that the public meeting sounded more like an excuse-fest for Sterigenics.

Because that’s what it was.

Now, unless they want to hear years more of excuses, and endure years more of inaction, the people of Willowbrook need to take charge of this. It’s too important to leave to government officials like Stepp and Messina.


Related Posts: Cancer Causing Chemicals: What Willowbrook Residents Can Learn from the Lockformer TCE LawsuitsWillowbrook Environmental Cancer AttorneysWillowbrook Residents Need Answers from EPA and Sterigenics About Ethylene Oxide Emissions and Cancer RiskWorld Health Organization Report: Airline Passengers and Crew Exposed to Toxic Air

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