In a bid to reopen shuttered Willowbrook plant, Sterigenics proposes tighter controls on cancer-causing gas

Sterigenics is vowing again to significantly reduce its emissions of cancer-causing ethylene oxide in west suburban Willowbrook, seeking to reopen one of its sterilization facilities amid fierce opposition from local officials pushing the company to leave town for good.

Under a proposal filed Thursday with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the Oak Brook-based company would install another set of pollution control equipment intended to prevent nearly all of the ethylene oxide it uses from escaping into surrounding neighborhoods.

For now, Sterigenics is only proposing to overhaul one of two buildings in an industrial park behind a Target store and across the street from Willowbrook Village Hall.

As recently as 2017, Sterigenics reported the two facilities emitted 4,600 pounds of ethylene oxide, a highly toxic gas that can potentially trigger breast cancer, leukemia and lymphomas at extremely low levels. If state officials sign off on its proposal, the company said, emissions from the retrofitted facility should drop to 85 pounds a year.

Sterigenics executives said there would be dramatic improvementslast summer after the company ducted vents from its sterilization chambers into existing pollution controls at both Willowbrook facilities. Yet the U.S. EPA kept finding high levels of ethylene oxide in nearby residential areas until Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration declared the facilities posed a public health hazard in February and effectively shut them down.

Attorneys for the company so far have failed to persuade a DuPage County judge to lift the state’s seal order. The proposed changes, which are similar to those already underway at Medline Industries in Waukegan, are a response to a recently enacted state law that clamps down on ethylene oxide emissions from industrial facilities throughout Illinois.

“Our focus is on acting in the best interest of the community, our employees, our customers and the patients and hospitals we serve every day,” Philip Macnabb, Sterigenics’ president, said in a statement.




The company said it has not decided whether it will attempt to reopen the second building in Willowbrook.

Sterigenics first came under scrutiny last year after the U.S. EPA released its latest National Air Toxics Assessment. The semiregular study is designed to highlight areas of the country facing unusually high cancer risks from air pollution, and the new version relied on an updated evaluation of ethylene oxide that concluded the chemical is far more dangerous than previously thought.

Using the new safety limit and emissions reported by Sterigenics from the Willowbrook facility, EPA scientists calculated that 20,000 people living in seven nearby census tracts potentially face lifetime cancer risks up to nine times higher than the national average.

The tracts are among just 109 out of 73,057 nationwide with risks exceeding the rate considered acceptable by the agency: One case for every 10,000 people exposed to toxic air during their lifetime.

Another federal agency concluded the risks of pollution-triggered cancer in Willowbrook could be orders of magnitude higher, prompting an intense public outcry and bipartisan efforts from federal and statelawmakers to take action against Sterigenics. The state’s Democratic attorney general and the Republican state’s attorney in DuPage County filed a joint lawsuit seeking to shut down the facilities.

In May, top officials from the U.S. EPA revealed that the company’s ethylene oxide emissions before the shutdown remained significantly higher than agency guidelines, despite the installation of additional pollution controls last summer.

Three Republican lawmakers who helped negotiate the new state law said the company shouldn’t be allowed to resume operations in a densely populated community.

“Sterigenics’ poor past performance should guarantee no future permit,” state Sen. John Curran of Downers Grove, House Minority Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs and Rep. Deanne Mazzochi of Elmhurst said Thursday in a statement. “We do not see how Sterigenics can comply with the new law’s strict requirements to ever open its Willowbrook doors again.”

A provision of the law singles out Sterigenics, preventing the company from reopening unless medical equipment suppliers — the company’s main clients — certify that their products can be sterilized only with ethylene oxide.

“Sterigenics can take whatever steps they feel are necessary to try and reopen,” Willowbrook Mayor Frank Trilla said in a statement. “But as long as they are using ethylene oxide, they are not welcome in Willowbrook.”

The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates medical devices, is launching an “innovation challenge” intended to pressure companies to reduce or eliminate use of the gas. At the EPA, officials have said they will propose new national regulations this summer that reflect the agency’s updated conclusions about health dangers posed by ethylene oxide.

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