Ethylene Oxide: Lake County Moves Forward on Air Test Plans

Officials expect to complete plans for air testing in Waukegan and Gurnee in early May. [Stuart Miles/Stockvault photo]

After speaking earlier this week with Lake County Health Department officials Mark Pfister and Larry Mackey, members of Clean Power Lake County’s ethylene oxide (EtO) team say there is good reason to be excited about moving forward to document and address EtO pollution in our community.

“It is important to note that what is happening here is rather unprecedented,” said Dr. Dylan Burdette of Clean Power Lake County. “This is a situation where every official from Rep. Brad Schneider down to the mayors in the fenceline communities affected by EtO is amazed by the failure of the US EPA and the Illinois EPA to take action and ensure the safety of citizens in the face of what has happened 50 miles away in Willowbrook at the Sterigenics facility, and that it is an obvious environmental justice issue. That being said, our local officials are making remarkable strides, and very quickly.”

First, we are nearing the end of air modeling that will inform the placement of testing canisters surrounding the Medline Industries plant in Waukegan and the Vantage Specialty Chemicals plant in Gurnee, Burdette explained.

As we were able to observe from the Willowbrook test case, many of the sites that were selected by the community ended up producing data that could not be used by either the EPA or the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the wing of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) devoted to calculating risk based on exposure, Burdette added.

In our case, all testing locations, and the number of locations, will be set using EPA modeling of air patterns, Burdette said.

A vendor has been chosen to do the air sampling, and all air samples will be analyzed using EPA facilities. In order to maintain full scientific integrity, the exact testing locations will be released only after the tests have begun.

For the air testing itself, there will be some regularity of every 3 days. There also will be randomly inserted tests in order to make sure that the facilities are not gaming the system.

The initial plan for testing is 30 days. However, if there are any valid scientific reasons for extending the testing, mechanisms are set in place by Pfister at the Lake County Health Department to extend that period as needed.

The entire planning portion of the air testing is expected to be completed over the next week, with testing due to commence in June. Once the plan is complete, contracts will be sent to the participating municipalities for votes of approval. At that point, the contract will be ratified by the Lake County Board of Health and testing will commence.

As we attempt to maintain maximum transparency during this time, we will issue updates when we can. However, we will only release factual and correct information, which may take time to vet, Burdette said.

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Ethylene Oxide: CPLC Fights Toxic Emissions in Our Community

Diana Burdette
Diana Burdette of Clean Power Lake County discusses community efforts to ban ethylene oxide emissions during an appearance on Adelante.

Tens of thousands of residents in western Waukegan, Gurnee, Park City, North Chicago, Warren Township, and Naval Station Great Lakes, are at risk from ethylene oxide (EtO) emissions — the same cancer-causing chemicals that prompted Gov. J.B. Pritzker to order the shutdown of Sterigenics in DuPage County.

And that is unacceptable!

Clean Power Lake County and Faith in Place have worked actively on this issue since November 2018, when an article about cancer-causing ethylene oxide gas emissions in Waukegan and Gurnee appeared on page 1 of the November 4, 2018, Chicago Tribune.  Our own Celeste Flores and Rev. Eileen Shanley-Roberts were key sources in that article.

That was when we learned that Medline Industries in Waukegan and Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee posed significant health risks to our communities.

Officials from Lake County, Waukegan and Gurnee knew about the hazards before the Chicago Tribune article was published. However, they did not warn neighbors of the hazards.

  • More than 19,000 people live within areas at risk from ethylene oxide emitted at the Medline Industries plant in Waukegan (near Skokie Highway and Casimir Pulaski Drive—just west of Greenbelt Forest Preserve).
  • More than 23,000 people live within areas at risk from ethylene oxide emitted at the Vantage Specialty Chemicals plant in Gurnee (near Route 41 and Delaney Road).

What’s happening on ethylene oxide in Lake County

February 12, 2019: U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), along with U.S. Representatives Brad Schneider (D-IL-10), Bill Foster (D-IL-11), Dan Lipinski (D-IL-03), and Sean Casten (D-IL-06), introduced bills that would hold the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency accountable for its poor oversight of ethylene oxide emissions.

March 27, 2019: U.S. Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Tom Carper (D-DE) sent a letter to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler seeking information related to the agency’s recent decision to question EPA career staff’s assessment of the health risks and political appointees’ handling of potentially illegal releases of ethylene oxide (EtO). They also requested documents shedding light on the Trump EPA’s enforcement efforts at the Sterigenics Illinois plant and its management of risks posed by EtO at facilities nationwide.

March 27, 2019: Celeste Flores and Diana Burdette testified in Washington, D.C., on the need to protect members of marginalized communities from toxic ethylene oxide emissions.

April 2, 2019: U.S. Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) asked the Department of Homeland Security to revise its characterization of ethylene oxide, as required under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standard, as both flammable and explosive.

April 8, 2019: The Lake County Health Department and Community Health Center, City of Waukegan, and Village of Gurnee officials announced plans to hire one vendor to collect air quality samples from four sites near Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee and four sites near Medline Industries in Waukegan. Read more.

April 10, 2019: The Illinois Senate passed SB 1852, requiring facilities to alert nearby property owners and local government of ethylene oxide leaks, and SB 1854, restricting and testing for fugitive emissions of ethylene oxide.

April 12, 2019:  U.S. Representative Brad Schneider (D-IL-10), spoke on the House floor regarding the need for ambient air testing of ethylene oxide in Waukegan and Gurnee so families can have confidence the air they and their children breathe is safe.

What is ethylene oxide?

Ethylene oxide (EtO) is a colorless gas used in the manufacturing of several industrial chemicals and as a sterilizing agent for medical equipment and supplies. People can be exposed to EtO through direct inhalation, ingestion, or contact to the skin, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

In December 2016, the U.S. EPA updated the risk status of ethylene oxide from “probably carcinogenic to humans” to “carcinogenic to humans.”

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