Sterigenics helps prevent death, not a cause of it, scientists say
The Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook has made plenty of headlines over the detection of ethylene oxide (EtO), used by the plant to sterilize medical equipment, in local air samples. While news reports have linked exposure to the gas to a higher risk of contracting cancer, company officials and independent air quality experts have repeatedly said that the trace levels of EtO detected in the air, some of it almost certainly from vehicle exhaust and other sources, pose no health risk to area residents.
Reports this week of public health officials warning of an increase in the number of infections from a rare but life-threatening fungus in the Chicago area serve as another warning as well, scientists say. Reports of threatening infections would be much more commonplace without modern sterilization practices, including the methods used at Sterigenics.
“Modern hygiene and sanitation employs a great number of weapons to combat infectious diseases,” Rich Trzupek, chemist and author, wrote in an email to the DuPage Policy Journal. “This includes basic housekeeping, work practices to avoid cross-contamination by care-givers, modern germ-killing cleaning chemicals, use of autoclaves (high temperature/high pressure) for sterilization of medical instruments and equipment when possible and, of course, the use of sterilization agents like ethylene oxide to ensure that medical equipment that cannot be sterilized in an autoclave is still germ free.”
Unfounded fears of exposure to a substance, Trzupek said, often stem from the belief that a manmade agent is bad because it’s “unnatural,” but much depends, natural or unnatural, on the level of exposure.
“Mother nature provides us with castor oil, which has some very good uses, but it also contains Ricin,” he said. “Ingesting too much castor oil is therefore deadly. Similarly, oxygen is a reactive gas that will – in the right conditions – wear away at certain biological systems in the body, thus the growth in the importance of anti-oxidants as part of a nutritional program. However, for all of its negative impacts, I’m pretty certain cutting off one’s oxygen supply entirely would have a more negative effect on one’s head.”
Trzupek added that “Sterigenics is a cog in a vast machine that combats the threat of infectious diseases, which are a much greater threat to public health and welfare – relatively speaking – than the vague, theoretical risks associated with tiny, intermittent exposures to this chemical or that. Pneumonia is much more likely to kill an elderly patient in the ICU than a passing whiff of a few parts per trillion of ethylene oxide.”