Yellow journalism? Chicago Tribune reporter Hawthorne accused of hyping Sterigenics scare
An environmental analyst blames Chicago Tribune reporter Michael Hawthorne for duping many Willowbrook, Darien, Burr Ridge and Hinsdale residents into believing the air in their communities causes cancer.
Chemist and author Richard Trzupek of Palatine says Hawthorne is hyping a false storyline, seeking to demonize the company, Sterigenics, and the chemical it uses to sterilize medical supplies, called ethylene oxide (EO).
He says Hawthorne is contorting EPA studies and assertions against the company to make them appear as if they arrive at a resoundingly frightening conclusion, when they don't.
Hawthorne frequently describes EO as “highly volatile and extremely dangerous," but "he doesn't give any context for it," Trzupek says.
“Ethylene oxide is no different from many other organic compounds, in that all are volatile and can be dangerous," Tzrupek says. "It depends on the concentration level and the environment. Natural gas is a good example of (an organic compound) that is used safely in businesses and homes everyday.”
Tzrupek pointed to a statement in Hawthorne's November 30 report that Sterigenics “can legally emit up to 36,400 pounds of ethylene oxide annually.”
The statement was intended to sound scary, Tzrupek says, as an average reader wouldn't know that such emissions have not only been deemed harmless by experts, but are also commonplace in an industrial metropolis like Chicago.
For instance, Tzrupek directed DuPage Policy Journal to an Illinois EPA permit issued for the Chicago Tribune's Freedom Center printing facility, which straddles the Chicago River on the city's near Northwest Side.
The Tribune is actually permitted to emit more ethylene oxide than is Sterigenics-- 39,800 pounds per year. That's as well as another 165,140 pounds of "volatile organic material" (widely considered responsible for urban ozone pollution, or smog) and 144,000 pounds of "particulate matter," blamed by the EPA for causing human breathing problems.
Unlike Sterigenics, the Chicago Tribune is not required to control its emissions.
They blinded me, with science
Tzrupek said Hawthorne's lack of understanding of basic scientific concepts, coupled with his determination to twist facts to support his central hypothesis that "industries poison people," has led to grossly inaccurate assertions in his reporting.
In the Nov. 30 report, Hawthorne emphasizes what he describes as an “industry-friendly decision” by President George W. Bush that limited “clean air regulations so sterilization facilities could bypass pollution-control equipment and vent the cancer-causing gas directly into the air.”
Trzupek said that while the rule was actually changed in 2001, the changes Hawthorne references were initiated in 1997 under President Bill Clinton. The Clinton Administration, Trzupek says, was actually responsible for the rule change.
“The EPA under Bush changed nothing,” Trzupek said.
Nevertheless, Trzupek says Hawthorne wildly exaggerates the rule change's environmental impact, which had a "negligible" effect.
Hawthorne suggests EO was being vented, uncontrolled as a result of it.
“This is disingenuous,” Trzupek said. “The rule change applied to only one very specific, very brief part of the process called back-venting that occurs near the end of the process. The sterilization process itself lasts from hours to days and EO emissions were required to be controlled and were controlled during that entire time.”
Hawthorne also refers to EO emissions as being “filtered.”
“You don’t filter organic gases,” Trzupek said. “You scrub them or you oxidize them.”
The Willowbrook scare started with an EPA report released in August based on 18 ambient air samples it took on a single day in May. It discarded 21 others it had taken.
Last month, EPA officials announced that all of those samples were inaccurate and would be thrown out. They were contaminated with another compound, agency officials said, causing higher EO readings than were actual.
Trzupek said the EPA badly mishandled the Sterigenics case from the start.
“The EPA didn’t note that people are exposed to equally minute concentrations of ethylene oxide generated by natural sources all the time,” he said.
A later test by an independent engineering firm showed that EO is prevalent through the Chicagoland area, as are other HAPs.
According to 2014 emission figures from the National Emission Inventory, total EO emissions in the six county Chicagoland area were 5.9 tons for the year. Total emissions of benzene, another known carcinogen, were 2,062 tons that year, and emissions of formaldehyde, another carcinogen, were 2,400 tons.
Trzupek also said that the EPA failed to explain to residents not to draw long-term conclusions about health risks from short-term sampling. And, he said, that the agency should have explained that any unacceptable cancer risk from EO would have applied only “if a resident stood in the same spot where the sample was taken and remained there for 33 years.”
Hawthorne has a history of hyping unsubstantiated environmental hazards and health threats, according to Tzrupek.
“He’s held in contempt by many of my colleagues and even by many in the public sector,” he said.