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With Sterigenics cleared to reopen, it’s up to state and federal officials to keep residents safe

Chicago Sun Times

Monday, September 9, 2019  |  Editorial  |  Editorial Board

In February, Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered the shutdown of the Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook, a facility long viewed by nearby residents as a public health threat for releasing into the air ethylene oxide. The compound is a known carcinogen, and the company legally released 254,000 pounds of it into surrounding neighborhoods between 1993 and 2017. Air testing showed that levels of the chemical remained elevated up to the plant’s shutdown last winter.

 

On Friday, a DuPage County judge ruled that Sterigenics could reopen. Judge Paul Fullerton’s decision comes after company officials reached an agreement with state officials in July to resume operations. In turn, the company agreed to reduce ethylene oxide emissions to 85 pounds per year, down from 2,890 pounds released into the air during 2017.

 

Will thousands of people who live around the plant be able to breathe easier?

 

Following Fullerton’s ruling, Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin proposed legislation that would give municipalities the power to ban the use of ethylene oxide in their communities. Pritzker has said before that if such a proposal surfaced, he would call a special legislative session to take it up. We’ll see if Durkin’s measure gains traction.

 

In the meantime, it will be up to state and federal officials, particularly the Illinois and U.S. Environmental Protection agencies, to ensure any ethylene oxide releases do not pose a health threat. That means round-the-clock air monitoring to ensure ethylene oxide levels don’t exceed the emissions guidelines and aren’t on the rise.

 

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The importance of that testing can’t be overstated. Sterigenics uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical instruments. Chronic exposure to the chemical is linked to breast cancer, leukemia and lymphomas. Repeated exposure can also cause nerve damage, and may cause liver and kidney damage. Chronic exposure to the compound also can impair cognitive function, some data suggest.

If air testing shows no serious health threat, that should be good news to nearby homeowners. If the tests show levels of ethylene oxide are moving upward, regulators can again intervene. A reminder: It was additional testing around the plant last winter that led to Pritzker’s decision to shut down the plant. Those test results showed spikes in ethylene oxide that were higher than levels seen before the company put in place additional pollution control measures.

 

More than 19,200 people live within a mile radius of the Sterigenics plant. We’ve said before that state and federal officials owe it to those people to let them know what’s in the air they breathe. Now that Sterigenics is slated to reopen, that’s an obligation that should not go ignored.

 

Editorials reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board, as determined by the members of the board, the editorial page editor and the publisher.