Tensions, confusion, lawsuits mount concerning Sterigenics emissions in Willowbrook

Willowbrook Mayor Frank Trilla said with tensions and confusion mounting over claims surrounding emissions from a local medical device sterilization plant, his community has “more questions today than we had three months ago.”

“Nothing is more important than finding out from U.S. EPA officials were our residents safe before this, are they safe now and will they be safe in the future,” Trilla told the Cook County Record. “There are no words to express the profound impact this has had on our village.”

The concern centers on the validity of a report disseminated earlier this year by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), based on data supplied by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, about levels of ethylene oxide emissions from the facility operated by Sterigenics.

The report elicited cancer scares among residents in Willowbrook, and the nearby communities of Hinsdale, Burr Ridge and Darien.

EPA officials have since admitted it was their miscalculations in classifying the chemical trans-2-butene as EO that helped the ATSDR arrive at their now-disputed findings. Nonetheless, many area residents continue to demand assurances that the situation does not pose health risks for them.

Republican state Sen. John Curran (R-Downers Grove) has introduced two pieces of legislation he claims are aimed at protecting the health and well-being of residents across the area.

“Senate Bill 3630 would assure residents of more safeguards in terms of how the facility operates,” Curran told the Cook County Record. “Right now, if you have a chemical spill in water or on land, Illinois has rules in place concerning how wide you have to make the notification. That’s not so for air, where place like Sterigenics come in, and this bill is about changing that for a carcinogen now determined to be 60 times more potent and likely to cause harm to humans than previously believed.”

SB 3640 would require the state to set standards regarding use of EO and more clearly define its uses.

Meanwhile, the number of lawsuits against Sterigenics, which uses EO to sterilize medical equipment, has hit a steady stream. Since September, dozens of lawsuits had been filed against the company in Cook County and DuPage County courts, and the EPA’s recent reclassification has done little to slow the rising tide.

In virtually every instance, the allegations are the same: Those living and working in and around Willowbrook have been placed at a heightened risk of developing cancer stemming from Sterigenics’ EO emissions. The EPA’s clarification has done little to alter those feelings.

In keeping with that theme, a local activist group has planned more demonstrations outside the company’s Oak Brook headquarters.

In a statement made available to the Cook County Record, EPA officials said:

“In the health consultation conducted for U.S. EPA Region 5, ATSDR relied on both the Region’s modeled estimates of ethylene oxide in the outdoor air in the area near the Sterigenics facility as well as the results of the monitoring the Region conducted in mid-May.

“U.S. EPA scientists have been working to improve the method for analyzing air samples for ethylene oxide. In November, EPA made a change to its method for analyzing air quality samples to prevent trans-2-butene from being misidentified as ethylene oxide in the future. That updated method is being used to analyze the samples of air currently being collected in the Willowbrook area.”

Finally, in response to the growing number of legal actions taken against them, Sterigenics officials have insisted no one else has shown themselves capable of providing the services it does.

The company points out more than half of all medical devices and up to 90 percent of all surgical kits used in U.S. operating rooms are sterilized using EO, adding that alternative methods aimed at sterilization have largely proven to be ineffective to the point of leaving patients more susceptible to infections.

This article was first published by Cook County Record.

Leave a Reply