News reports more of a threat to public than Sterigenics, air quality expert says
The Chicago Tribune distorted EPA findings of ethylene oxide (EO) emissions from Sterigenics to fit a predetermined conclusion concerning the level of danger from the plant, according to Rich Trzupek, a Heartland Institute policy advisor on the environment and energy. The “irresponsible” reporting has again sent Willowbrook and nearby residents into a near panic over the perceived danger, he said.
“You can twist findings to make a scary story out of any one of the 187 hazardous emissions monitored by the EPA,” Trzupek, referring to the February 6 Tribune story, told the DuPage Policy Journal. “That’s what they’ve done.”
The headline in the story by Tribune environmental reporter Michael Hawthorne sets the theme: “Trump EPA confirms Sterigenics emitting alarming levels of cancer-causing gas in Willowbrook …”
“The EPA never used the world ‘alarming’ in its findings,” Trzupek said. “And of course the Tribune calls it the ‘Trump EPA’ when most of the EPA employees are there from the Obama administration and before that.”
What the EPA did find in a few areas close to the plant, which uses the gas to sterilize medical equipment, were EO levels slightly elevated from background levels and from earlier findings (levels that by the EPA’s own admission could have come from other natural and manmade sources besides Sterigenics.) But they were nowhere near high enough to “trigger more than six cases of cancer per 1,000 people exposed,” as the article claims, Trzupek said.
“Don’t know where he got that from,” Trzupek said of Hawthorne’s elevated-cancer-risk claim. “The EPA readings [of EO] were temporary and spatially limited. You would have to stand in the same spot for 33 years with the wind coming from the same direction to see any increased cancer risk from the levels the EPA found. You have a greater chance of getting sick of dying from thousands of other things.”
Hawthorne also wrote that the EPA began looking more closely at Sterigenics after census data showed a higher cancer risk near the plant.
But Trzupek said the EPA is not targeting Sterigenics because of a higher cancer risk; the agency continually performs “residual risk” assessments to ensure that control technology standards are adequately protecting health.
“More testing is going on now than normal because of the pressure churned out by the news reports, not because of increased cancer risks,” Trzupek said.
Former State Rep. Jeanne Ives, a Republican of Wheaton, said that in a phone call last fall with the federal and Illinois EPA officials that no one mentioned that the testing was being done because of an increased cancer cluster in the area.
“I asked them directly about it, and they denied it,” Ives said.
In what Trzupek called another miscue, the Tribune article grouped Sterigenics with Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee in an attempt to show that EO poses a wider risk than to just Willowbrook and surrounding communities. Trzupek called that an “apples to oranges” comparison, because Vantage uses EO not to sterilize but in manufacturing.
“EO is completely consumed in the manufacturing process,” he said.
Based on the new reports about the EPA findings, some elected officials called for Sterigenics to close.
“The latest allegations against Sterigenics are beyond troubling,” wrote House Minority Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) on his Facebook page, “and once again call into question their commitment to the safety of our communities and their employees, I am not convinced, nor are many of the families that I represent, that Sterigenics is willing to make the changes necessary to ensure our health and safety. So, I am calling on Sterigenics to immediately shut their doors and leave our community."
Trzupek said that Durkin should go to Congress and tell it to shut down all wastewater treatment plants because they emit EO too.
“When biological materials breakdown as part of the treatment process, some of it is converted to EO and other chemicals that are emitted to the atmosphere,” Trzupek said. “But I don’t think anyone wants to shut them down because of that.”
Trzupek’s commentaries have appeared in a variety of regional and national publications, including the Chicago Tribune, Crain’s Chicago Business and Reuters.
He is the author of Regulators Gone Wild: How the EPA Is Ruining American Industry (Encounter Books, 2011).