Study: Normal, non-threatening levels of ethylene oxide (EO) exist throughout Chicagoland area
Evidence is piling up that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) owes residents in the Willowbrook area a public apology for discredited claims that elevated levels of the gas ethylene oxide (EO) placed the community at higher risk for cancer and other illnesses. In August, the EPA and other federal agencies pointed to the Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook, which uses EO to sterilize medical equipment, as the source for the elevated levels of the gas. But the EPA’s collection data used in part for its risk assessment is, by its own admission, worthless. The agency said as much in a statement released last week.
And the results of a separate, more rigorous study released this week showed that EPA’s infinitesimal threshold for risk places everyone in the Chicagoland area in danger of EO exposure. In fact, the study conducted by Ramboll, an international engineering and consulting firm, showed that background levels of EO are 500 to 6,100 times higher than the EO risk level of one part per 10 trillion established by the USEPA.
“The study further highlights the implausible risk level for EO set by the EPA,” Mark Biel, chief executive officer for the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois, told the DuPage Policy Journal. “If the EPA’s risk level of EO is to be believed then the very act of living in the Chicagoland area poses a risk. It’s got to be terribly painful for the USEPA to intellectually try and defend their IRIS [integrated risk] assessment of EO.”
Ramboll tested ambient air at 31 locations across the Chicagoland area between Oct. 12-23. Sources of the gas include exhaust from motor vehicles, chemicals used by farmers, even decaying plant life.
“The Chicagoland EO levels identified in these tests are consistent with what is already known about EO in the scientific community,” Sterigenics said in a Nov. 27 statement.
The measurements by Romboll had none of methodological flaws nor were its samples as contaminated as were the USEPA samples, the company said.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) took the EPA’s study results (using only a few samples showing the highest levels of EO), and put their conclusions down in an August report.
ATSDR regional director Mark Johnson summarized the report, in part, telling Willowbrook residents at an Aug. 29 town hall meeting that Sterigenics was responsible for a "5 percent" increase in cancer risk in Willowbrook.
He also told residents that EO caused emphysema and "effects tissues exposed" to it, and he encouraged residents to get their blood tested for EO exposure. The ATSDR report and town hall meeting were well publicized through news outlets and social media, and a near panic ensued.
State lawmakers reacted with legislation that would ban EO and close the Sterigenics plant. But with the EPA’s own admission of faulty data and the additional evidence that EO is present in non-threatening levels throughout the Chicagoland area, the legislation lost momentum in Springfield.
Any legislative action will almost certainly have to wait until next year as Nov. 29 is the last day of the fall session.