Tribune reporter Hawthorne, criticized by many for his Sterigenics coverage, is up for a Lisagor award
An air-quality expert and frequent critic of Michael Hawthorne’s reporting on the environment told DuPage Policy Journal that he wasn’t surprised the Chicago Tribune staffer was a finalist for a regional journalism award for his coverage of Sterigenics, the Willowbrook plant that uses ethylene oxide (EtO) gas to sterilize medical equipment.
“The mainstream media has willingly disassociated itself from any personal responsibility to understand issues that involve science, health or the environment,” Rich Trzupek, chemist and author, said in an interview conducted via email. “They would rather rely on ‘experts’ and, given the mainstream media’s world-view, using their experts of choice that almost always have a leftist agenda. Michael Hawthorne’s coverage of the fabricated Sterigenics crisis had nothing to do with science, health or the environment.”
The Chicago Headline Club, a society of journalists, has placed Hawthorne on a list of three finalists under a “Best Science, Health or Environment Reporting” category for its regional Peter Lisagor Awards. The winner will be announced May 10 at the Union League Club of Chicago.
Stories linking the detection of EtO in the air near the Sterigenics plant to higher cancer risks have been in the news ever since a report last August that EPA testing found the plant was emitting potentially unsafe levels of the gas. The EPA later admitted that its conclusions were based on faulty readings.
Hawthorne has since written a series of reports, citing an association between EtO and higher cancer risks, that have contributed to a near panic in the Willowbrook area. But Trzupek has said the stories lack perspective – no reference to other, much higher cancer risks, nor any reliance on hard science. Under the levels of EtO detected in subsequent readings by the EPA, for example, someone would have to stand in the same spot for over thirty years, with the same weather conditions, to experience any increased cancer risk.
On March 12, the Tribune published a “Note to Readers” written by Publisher & Editor-in-Chief Bruce Dold to “clarify” Hawthorne’s coverage of Sterigenics.
The paper “stands by the reporting as fair and accurate,” Dold wrote, but is providing “additional detail today to clarify some of the points touched upon in the articles.”
The paper’s backpedal hardly backpedaled far enough for Trzupek.
“Dold’s ‘Note to Readers’ could be summed up as follows: ‘Well, we might have left a few things out of the story that might have been of interest, but aren’t we fine folks for bringing this situation to everyone’s attention,'" Trzupek said. "I’m not sure if this is supposed to be a lukewarm apology or an attempt to avoid a libel suit.”
The paper’s reassessment of the coverage, Trzupek adds, still gives no context for how cancer risks are evaluated, and provides no information regarding cancer risks associated with “many, many other substances” identified as potential carcinogens.
“They spent no time explaining that cancer risks are cumulative,” he said. “There’s no one substance that magically causes cancer the moment you’re exposed to a molecule of it. Cancer risk is a combination of genetics, lifestyle, diet, dermal exposures, inhalation exposures and a host of other factors of which EtO plays one, very small part.”
What the paper did allow, Trzupek says, was Hawthorne to insert his personal bias into the stories
“Most repugnantly when he attempted to blame the ‘Bush EPA’ for decisions about sterilization regulation that were initiated during the Clinton administration.”
In a Sterigenics story last week, Hawthorne, citing a recently released Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) study, leads with, “Women and girls living near Sterigenics in west suburban Willowbrook between 1995 and 2015 suffered higher than expected rates of certain cancers associated with long-term exposure to ethylene oxide, according to a new state report.”
Buried later in the story was this contradiction: “State officials cautioned that it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine why somebody develops cancer.”
Sterigenics had much the same reaction to the IDPH study.
“While the heightened incidence rates for certain types of cancers in Willowbrook noted in the report warrant closer study, given the numerous ‘differences and inconsistencies’ highlighted in the report, it is unreasonable to use the findings as evidence of any link between ethylene oxide (EtO), Sterigenics and the incidence of cancer in the Willowbrook area,” the company said in a statement.
“To be clear, while elevated incidences of certain cancers were noted in the report, ‘None of the three lymphohematopoietic cancers that previous studies have found to be associated with EtO . . . were found to be increased in either males or females,’" the statement continued. “As the IDPH clearly articulates, ‘Any observed increase, in and of itself, is insufficient to draw conclusions regarding the potential impact of EtO exposure.’”
Trzupek said that the Tribune’s coverage of Sterigenics has been nothing short of the character assassination of innocent people.
“[The articles] damaged the reputations of a lot of good people at Illinois EPA and USEPA, and that diverted vast amounts of money and resources that could have been used to address much more important environmental issues,” he wrote in one of his emails. “The degree to which environmental professionals of all sorts – attorneys, regulators and scientists like me – hold Hawthorne in contempt is difficult to measure. His Sterigenics series represents a new low.”