House hears testimony on Sterigenics, ethylene oxide emissions in advance of proposed legislation
The House Environmental Committee heard testimony regarding ethylene oxide emissions and proposed legislation to ban them from the state on Tuesday.
Rep. Sam Yingling (D-Round Lake Beach) said such emissions are causing a public health crisis in the state.
"There has been much focus on the Sterigenics facility, but it's important to realize there are other facilities across the state emitting this chemical," Yingling said at the committee hearing. "There are two in Lake County. Tens of thousands of residents are exposed to this cancer-causing agent."
Yingling said the crisis cannot go unchecked, which was why he was going to file legislation to ban ethylene oxide emissions in Illinois.
Deputy Gov. Christian Mitchell said the Pritzker administration felt immediate action was necessary, which was why a seal order was issued on Feb. 15 for the Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook.
"This was an extraordinary and important step," Mitchell said. "But because we are currently engaged in legal proceedings, we have no more comment at this time. We’re here to listen and we remain committed to working with everyone."
Jennifer Walling, executive director for the Illinois Environmental Council, said she grew up near the Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook.
"While this issue is happening in DuPage, it could happen in any of your districts at any time," Walling said. "I strongly applaud the actions for the seal order, but we need a permanent solution and to tackle the issue wherever it may arise."
House Republican Leader Jim Durkin (R-Burr Ridge) said he lives less than five miles from the plant in Willowbrook.
"Willowbrook is in my district," Durkin said. "We take this very seriously. This issue is not going to go away, we’re going to address it one way or another and send a strong message."
Several residents of Willowbrook spoke about their fear of living so close to the facility.
Melissa Alvarado said her mother and father were both diagnosed with cancer.
"I held my mother in my arms as she died," Alvarado said. "Both of my parents are missed dearly every day."
Alvarado said when her son was a toddler he began coughing and they took him to countless doctors that could not figure out the source of the cough.
"He would cough so hard he would throw up," Alvarado said. "The doctors could not figure out what it was. It wasn’t until after I talked to other mothers that I found out other children (in Willowbrook) had the same symptoms."
Rep. David Welter (R-Morris) said he hoped someone from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency would be able to answer questions about the emissions.
Mark Biel, the CEO for the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois said there are a lot of sources of ethylene oxide across the country, including vehicle exhaust and cooking oil.
"We're upset with the state for closing down Sterigenics," Biel said. "They've not violated any laws. They're within their permit. How did we get to this point?"
Biel said the action taken with the seal order was not lost on the rest of the country.
Donovan Griffith, the director of government affairs with the Illinois Manufacturers Association said the seal order sets a dangerous precedent.
"It's operating within legal limits," Griffith said. "The company was shut down for doing what it was supposed to do. The emissions are not an immediate threat. Nothing has changed that would make this an emergency situation."
John Bomher, senior vice president of health policy with Illinois Health & Hospital Association, was neutral on the situation.
"Reasonable oversight is necessary," Bomher said. "If changes to the current environment are determined to be necessary to protect the environment and public, hospitals will do anything to adapt."
Williams asked if anyone had information on whether or not ethylene oxide had an impact on adults versus children.
Rep. Deanne Mazzochi (R-Westmont) said studies have shown there could potentially be a higher risk to children (from exposure) but there is no established threshold yet.
Yingling said his legislation's goal is to ban emissions by 2020.
"The legislation is in the drafting phase," he said. "Regardless of what people want to believe, the reality remains the same. EO causes cancer."
Walling said it was important to note that the legislation would be a ban on emissions and not a ban on the use of the product.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. EPA are at odds regarding the shutdown of portions of the Sterigenics plant. The Illinois EPA issued the seal order, but the U.S. EPA took a more cautious approach to the plant's emissions.
"[M]onitoring information about ethylene oxide in the Willowbrook area remains limited," the U.S. EPA reported. "It remains premature to draw conclusions about long-term health risks from the data."