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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Lake County Lawmakers Lead Fight Against Climate Change

Hot Steam From Big Chimney ID-10068567
[Photo by Worradmu/Freedigitalphotos.net]

Six state assembly members from Lake County were among 53 members of the Illinois House and Senate who last month urged the EPA to set strong limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants, and who pledged support for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.

“The EPA limits other dangerous pollutants such as mercury, arsenic, smog and soot pollution from power plants; it is time to do the same for carbon pollution,” said the December 1, 2014, letter to Gina McCarthy, head of the EPA.

The six Lake County officials who signed the letter are:

  • State Senator Julie Morrison, Senate District 29
  • State Senator Melinda Bush, Senate District 31
  • State Representative Elaine Nekritz, Assistant Majority Leader, House District 57
  • State Representative Scott Drury, House District 58
  • State Representative Carol Sente, House District 59
  • State Representative Sam Yingling, House District 62

Tony Award-winning director and Illinois native Anna Shapiro recently narrated a video thanking Illinois lawmakers for leading the fight against climate change—and helping make Illinois a leader in clean energy policy.

Here are some ways in which Illinois is well-positioned to meet the challenge of reducing carbon pollution:

  • Illinois led the nation in the number of communities using renewable energy between 2008 and 2012.
  • Energy efficiency investments have saved Illinois consumers roughly $1 billion since 2008.
  • More than 96,000 Illinoisans currently are employed across the state in clean energy jobs, according to a recent survey by the Clean Energy Trust. That number is roughly equal to the size of the state’s real estate and accounting industries—and it is expected to grow 9 percent this year.

The EPA is slated to finalize new carbon pollution standards by June 2015.