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The Sterigenics Scare: U.S. EPA Owes DuPage and Lake Emissions Safety Standards

Chicago Tribune Editorial Board

What if the speed limit that Illinois set for a highway was 100 mph instead of 55 mph? Just because a government declares something safe wouldn’t mean it’s safe. Rules and regulations, especially those in science realms, don’t mean much if they’re not backed up by rock-solid research.

Now, though, federal authorities can’t give assurance that they have the right standard — one backed by rigorous analysis — for tolerable levels of ethylene oxide. Chicago-area companies release that gaseous compound into air breathed by thousands of people who live and work around those plants. The question now unanswered is what health risk those emissions pose to all those metro Chicagoans.

This fall, the Tribune’s Michael Hawthorne has reported on three companies that emit ethylene oxide, a chemical on the federal government’s list of carcinogens. Sterigenics International in Willowbrook, a southeast DuPage County suburb, uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical instruments, pharmaceutical drugs and food. Two companies in Lake County, Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee and Medline Industries in Waukegan, also release the chemical into the air.

These companies have valid permits that allow ethylene oxide emissions within certain limits, and there’s no sign that they’re exceeding those limits. But are the standards set at the right mark? That’s what four Illinois Democrats in Congress — Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth and Reps. Brad Schneider and Bill Foster — want to know.

Spurred by the Tribune’s reporting, they’ve asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to revise standards for ethylene oxide emissions so the standards accurately reflect the health risk the emissions pose. The lawmakers have told the agency that it also should sample the air around the Lake County plants so that the risk of short-term and long-term exposure can be understood. EPA officials have already committed to conducting new air sampling near Sterigenics.

With their requests the lawmakers have zeroed in on the evident problem with federal oversight of ethylene oxide releases like those in the Chicago area: The U.S. EPA’s standards for emissions at commercial sterilizer facilities haven’t been updated since 2006. The Clean Air Act appears to require that, at a minimum, the standards establishing tolerable risk be updated every eight years. “This extraordinary delay both violates the law and is unacceptable,” U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., wrote in a letter to the EPA on Tuesday.

Late last month, the EPA said it would begin reviewing its standards for companies that emit ethylene oxide. But, Lipinski says, the agency hasn’t set deadlines for its review. Given that the review is already four years overdue, “statements that the standards are under review are not sufficient,” Lipinski wrote. The agency already knows how toxic ethylene oxide can be. In a 2016 assessment of the health dangers posed by ethylene oxide, the agency found that breathing even small amounts of the chemical ramps up the long-term risk for lymphoma and breast cancer.

The call for the EPA to do a relatively rapid reassessment of current safety standards makes perfect sense. So does the imperative to test the air surrounding facilities that emit ethylene oxide. Separately, state lawmakers in Springfield are considering a proposal to limit, and eventually ban, the use of ethylene oxide in Illinois.

Officials of the Chicago-area plants say their operations are safe, and that they continue to comply with all federal and state regulations. That’s missing the point. Yes, a company may be complying with current standards. But is it also true that, as Duckworth alleged to the Tribune this fall, those standards “are woefully inadequate to protect our families and our children.”

The bottom line here is that the EPA has to determine whether Duckworth is correct. If the companies instead assert that the safety standards they’re following are adequate, they should be able to present the EPA with the science that backs up their contention.

More than 19,200 people live within a mile radius of the Sterigenics plant. Four schools and a day care center are within that radius. Nearly 23,000 people live near the Vantage plant in Gurnee. And more than 19,000 people live in neighborhoods at potential risk from emissions from Medline.

That’s more than 61,000 people who want to feel safe when they’re walking their kids to school, or watching them play at a neighborhood playground. They deserve to know what’s in the air around them. And they deserve sensible pollution standards that keep that air safe.