“Clarification,” not apology is all Willowbrook residents can expect from federal agencies over hyped-up cancer scare
A regional director for a federal health agency said Monday that he expected a “clarification” from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but not a public retraction or formal apology over its erroneous reports of harmful emissions of ethylene oxide (EO) from the Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) used the EPA’s faulty numbers as the rationale for issuing an ill-advised cancer warning in August to residents living in communities near Sterigenics, including Willowbrook, Hinsdale, Burr Ridge and Darien.
ATSDR regional director Mark D. Johnson insisted Monday that the EPA’s statement last week that it miscalculated the levels of EO emissions did not mean the figures were “invalid,” or the talk of cancer risks unwarranted.
But Johnson and EPA officials have admitted privately, sources say, that even if the now discredited data had been accurate, only someone who had never left their home for 33 years straight would have an increased cancer risk-- and even then, only slightly.
Johnson deferred requests to elaborate on his remarks or the timing of last week’s stunning EPA statement that the scare was based on incorrect EPA data.
A spokesperson for the EPA told the DuPage Policy Journal that it was working on a public response.
On the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving, the EPA issued a surprise statement characterizing its high false readings as “an issue.”
"U.S. EPA recently discovered an issue with the way ethylene oxide has been measured,” the statement said. “As a result of the issue, monitors may have reported higher ambient levels of ethylene oxide than actually exist.”
"A political witch hunt"
Former Burr Ridge Mayor Mickey Straub said that he wasn’t surprised that the EPA revised its emission figures.
“I thought the numbers, the whole thing was sketchy right from the beginning,” Straub said. “Then an EPA official told me ‘that we can’t go right out there and say it, but the numbers are crazy.’ All this lead me that this was a political witch-hunt, based on fear and not facts.”
Straub added that when reports of the emissions were released in August, he advised residents to remain calm and allow due process to take its course, but he was “ostracized” anyway.
The now discredited report by Johnson was posted on the internet, without a formal announcement, on Wed. Aug. 22.
On a conference call three days later, including officials from the EPA, Illinois Department of Public Health and DuPage County Health Department, sources say Johnson apologized to village officials for his report's release, saying it was intended for "internal use only" and based on "worst case scenarios." He said there was actually no immediate health risk to residents of Willowbrook and surrounding communities.
But pressed to state this publicly and help calm residents, Johnson demurred, claiming he wasn't authorized to do so.
At an Aug. 29 town hall meeting, Johnson said in opening remarks that he "did not anticipate the report would be released" and that he was "hoping to clarify some of those conclusions."
But confronted by angry residents who now believed Sterigenics was responsible for cancer in their loved ones, asking whether they should let their children play outside, he backpedaled.
Johnson and his colleague and report co-author, ATSDR Michelle Colledge, said they couldn't say with certainty that EO wasn't causing cancer in area children.
"We don't have tons of data on kids. We don't know what concentrations (of EO) are harmful to children," Colledge said.
Johnson warned residents that they were at a higher risk of emphysema and other illnesses, and encouraged them to see their physician to get tested for exposure.
Gov.-elect and Democrat J.B. Pritzker used published reports about the fear emission numbers and cancer warnings were instilling in local residents to hammer incumbent Republican governor Bruce Rauner, who was a partner in a private equity firm that owned Sterigenics.
Democrat 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.
Pritzker defeated Rauner, and Casten upset the incumbent Roskam by five percentage points.
Johnson, of Oak Park, has voted in ten of ten Democrat primaries and zero Republican ones since 1996, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections. Colledge works in Chicago but is registered to vote in Tallahassee, Florida as a Democrat, according to state records.
Organizations in this Story
Casten for Congress • DuPage County Health Department • Environmental Protection Agency • Illinois Environmental Protection Agency • Illinois State Board of Elections • U.S. Representative Peter Roskam (IL-6)