EPA: Willowbrook all-clear, bad reading caused cancer scare
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says it incorrectly reported a Willowbrook company was emitting unsafe levels of a chemical, falsely claiming it could cause cancer.
The admission came in an EPA news release issued late Wednesday, which described “an issue” with the way it measured the chemical, ethylene oxide, in the controversial reading announced back in August.
"U.S. EPA recently discovered an issue with the way ethylene oxide has been measured. As a result of the issue, monitors may have reported higher ambient levels of ethylene oxide than actually exist," the EPA release said.
Sterigenics International sterilizes medical products, including surgical trays and gowns. Ethylene oxide is the only known chemical that can sanitize plastic; it has been widely used in the medical and food industries for decades.
“This discovery means that the results of (Willowbrook) air quality monitoring conducted prior to October 2018 may have shown higher concentrations of ethylene oxide than were actually in the air,” the report said.
"At the expense of public health"
The EPA's correction came too late for Illinois political candidates bludgeoned over its false report during the 2018 mid-term elections.
After the report was issued, several sought to quickly use it to their own advantage.
Democrat Governor-elect J.B. Pritzker made the false report a campaign issue against Republicans and Governor Bruce Rauner, whose former private equity firm, GTCR, holds a minority stake in Sterigenics, which has 46 facilities in 13 countries, per its web site.
Congressional candidate Sean Casten held a press conference with a blowhorn in front of Sterigenics' offices to blame his opponent, U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) for "not doing enough" to protect DuPage County from cancer.
"Sean Casten Calls Out Peter Roskam for Continued Attack on Environment At Expense of Public Health," read an Aug. 28 press release, in which Casten suggested Roskam took money from Sterigenics to cover up its allegedly unlawful activities.
State Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) made the false EPA reading central to the state senate campaign of his 30-year old second cousin, Bridget Fitzgerald of Western Springs, which he bankrolled to the tune of $1.6 million this fall.
On the campaign trail, Fitzgerald repeatedly suggested State Sen. John Curran (R-Downers Grove) was responsible for cancer in southern DuPage County.
“We need real leadership that can repair the damage that has inflicted in the community of Willowbrook and surrounding communities,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Critics of the August EPA report tried to point out what they saw as obvious flaws, but were drowned out by the politicians.
In a letter to the editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, which endorsed Pritzker, Casten and Fitzgerald, Mark Denzler of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association said the report was inaccurate and based on incorrect risk assessments regarding ethyene oxide.
"When sampling air around Willowbrook, the (EPA) admitted it threw out 21 of 39 samples due to low readings, essentially cherry-picking data," he wrote.
Denzler said any elevated levels of the chemical in the air near Willowbrook were due to vehicle exhaust from the two major expressways adjacent to it, and harmless nonetheless.
"How did the U.S. EPA set a risk level for (ethylene oxide) of 1 part per 10 trillion, or one raindrop in 160 Olympic-size swimming pools?" he wrote. "Doing so stigmatized the Village of Willowbrook, needlessly frightened its citizens, put employees’ jobs in jeopardy and blackballed a facility known for sterilizing a significant portion of the medical equipment used in the Chicago area. It’s regulator malpractice.
Organizations in this Story
Friends of Bridget Fitzgerald • Illinois Environmental Protection Agency • Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner • Illinois State Senator John F. Curran (R-41st) • J.B. Pritzker for Governor • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) • Village of Willowbrook