For over a year scientists have been refuting the Chicago Tribune’s assertions that emissions of ethylene oxide (EtO), from a medical equipment plant, Sterigenics in Willowbrook, presented a danger to the public.
The Tribune’s coverage of the emissions, principally by environmental reporter Michael Hawthorne, set off a regional panic over EtO, a compound used in the sterilization of the equipment. Last October, Sterigenics, overwhelmed by public pressure, closed the Willowbrook operation for good.
It’s all coming back to haunt the Tribune, and public officials who followed the paper’s lead in the public brawl that erupted over Sterigenics, says air quality expert and author, Rich Trzupek. Much of the medical equipment needed in the fight against the coronavirus can only be sterilized with EtO, and that equipment is in dangerously short supply.
Chemist and air quality specialist Richard J. Trzupek | LinkedIn
“We may now pay a heavy price for Governor Pritzker and many members of the General Assembly who chose to surrender public policy to Michael Hawthorne,an ignorant, biased, charlatan of a reporter with a long history of publishing deceptive stories in a newspaper that has apparently has no desire to exercise editorial control over him,” Trzupek told the DuPage Policy Journal.
Health care professionals are now scrambling, and in some cases scavenging, for personal protective equipment (PPE), including gowns, masks and other medical equipment needed in the fight to save those sickened by COVID-19.
It’s gotten so bad that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is urging the Governor of Georgia to allow the re-opening of a Sterigenics plant in Cobb County that was closed last summer under a level of public pressure similar to what it faced in Illinois.
“Sterigenics told Cobb County it has at least 1 million items of PPE awaiting sterilization, among a host of other medical devices used by hospitals to treat patients,” the Cook County Record reported. “The company further claimed it sterilizes a quarter of all PPE used in the world. And Sterigenics claimed it had ‘developed a safe method for rapid mask sterilization in China at the request of the Chinese Government.’"
The FDA hasn't said whether it asked Gov. Pritzker to reopen the company's Illinois plant.
Sterigenics walked away from its Willowbrook plant, citing unbearable hostility from the press, elected officials and the public.
“Unfortunately, inaccurate and unfounded claims regarding Sterigenics and the unstable legislative and regulatory landscape in Illinois have created an environment in which it is not prudent to maintain these critical sterilization operations in Willowbrook,” Sterigenics said in a statement at the time.
Numerous lawsuits have also been filed against the company; the actions don’t cite violations of federal or state emissions regulations (because there weren’t any, Trzupek says), but public nuisance ordinances, a legal maneuver increasingly used by trial lawyers in cases where no clear cause and effect involving an alleged injury can be established.
Another company that uses EtO to sterilize medical equipment, Medline, headquartered in Northfield, has also come under media and public pressure. Spokesman for the company, Jesse Greenberg, said that “COVID will not stand up to gowns, surgical masks, any medical equipment or devices sterilized by EtO," and that they are working "flat out" to meet demand.
“Supply constrictions [caused by the virus spread in China] combined with the unprecedented global need for Personal Protective Equipment due to the coronavirus pandemic has us focused on ensuring current Medline healthcare customers have the essential supplies they need to protect both patients and staff,” Greenberg said. “We have put in place inventory management programs and allocations to protect as much inventory as possible for our customers. In addition, we are actively working on options to increase production in other areas of our global supply chain, while diligently monitoring the situation in Southeast Asia.”
Trzupek said that he supports the stay-at-home order issued by the governor under the coronavirus emergency, but questions how long it might be necessary if sterile medical equipment isn’t available.
“It’s been appalling to witness cowardly Illinois politicians undermine our environmental protection system, one that has worked so well for so long, in order to pander to mob mentality,” he said.