The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that a suburban area in Willowbrook, Illinois is facing a risk of cancer over nine times the national average due to contamination by ethylene oxide. Ethylene oxide has been used for decades as fumigant to sterilize heat-sensitive medical equipment and other goods. The volatile, easily absorbed chemical has been recognized as a carcinogen since 1985. In December 2016, the EPA released a re-assessment linking it more conclusively to breast and blood cancer.
Sterigenics International, a company that’s primary business is fumigating medical instruments, pharmaceutical drugs and food, owns two industrial buildings in the area. Federal officials began investigating Sterigenics last year after the surrounding communities showed evidence of health hazards from breathing toxic chemicals.
In a report released in late August, the EPA concluded that seven census tracts around the Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook have cancer risks high enough to trigger the agency’s concern. The Willowbrook tracts are among 109 nationwide with cancer risk scores greater than 100, meaning if 1 million people were exposed to the same level of pollution throughout their lives (24 hours a day, for 70 years), 100 of them would likely develop cancer.
A spokeswoman for Sterigenics’ parent company said executives are still reviewing the newly released study. The company called the use of ethylene oxide “a critical step … to protect patients who use these products from harmful bacteria that could cause infection or death.”
At the EPA’s request, Sterigenics recently installed new equipment to reduce the Willowbrook plant’s pollution. Federal officials, along with the Illinois EPA, haven’t determined if the controls are effective.
“EPA is working closely with Willowbrook to address any community concerns,” said Cathy Stepp, the regional EPA administrator. The EPA’s report notes that the Willowbrook facility’s air pollution does not pose the type of immediate health threats seen in some work settings. The EPA also said it is reviewing ethylene oxide emissions at other facilities across the country and is considering an overhaul of national air quality regulations to address heightened concerns about the chemical.
We will continue to monitor the EPA’s actions on ethylene oxide, with an eye towards the inevitable litigation to follow this new report.