Illinois residents are largely familiar by now with the controversy surrounding Sterigenics International’s Willowbrook facility, which both federal and state authorities have determined is emitting significant amounts of cancer-causing ethylene oxide gas. These emissions have reportedly resulted in elevated cancer risks to the more than 19,000 residents in the surrounding areas, recently prompting the Illinois Attorney General and the DuPage County Prosecutor to file suit urging a state court to shut Sterigenics down. Now, a recent investigation by the Chicago Tribune has found that two Lake County facilities are releasing the same cancer-causing gas as Sterigenics – Waukegan’s Medline Industries and Gurnee’s Vantage Specialty Chemicals.
Medline Industries in Waukegan
In a color-coded map depicting toxic-air pollution in the United States, the EPA shaded the area surrounding Medline’s Waukegan facility dark blue, the designation for communities facing abnormally high cancer risks. Only a few dozen communities across the country are shaded dark blue, with the neighborhoods surrounding Sterigenics’ Willowbrook facility among them.
More than 19,000 people live within the EPA’s designated high-risk area surrounding Medline’s Waukegan plant.
Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee
As high as the above ethylene oxide gas emissions may seem, there is another nearby Lake County facility that produces even greater annual emissions of the cancer-causing gas: Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee.
According to its own self-reported data to the EPA, Vantage released 6,412 pounds of ethylene oxide gas in 2014 – more than either Medline or Sterigenics. Over 23,000 people live near Vantage’s Gurnee chemical plant, with Six Flags Great America about two miles west of it.
Despite having a higher rate of ethylene oxide gas emissions than either Sterigenics or Medline, the neighborhoods surrounding the Vantage chemical facility have not been colored dark blue on the EPA’s map. However, this omission appears to be the result of a clerical oversight.
According to federal and state officials who spoke to the Tribune, the only reason the area surrounding Vantage was not designated dark blue is that someone on the state level did not provide Vantage’s ethylene oxide emissions data to the EPA’s most recent assessment of cancer risks. Without the Vantage emissions included in its calculations, the EPA may have significantly underestimated the hazards posed to the facility’s neighbors.
Public Not Informed of Ethylene Oxide Risk
There is no indication that either Medline or Vantage is violating permits they were issued allowing emissions of ethylene oxide gas within certain limits. Moreover, both of these companies appear to be complying with the EPA, having voluntarily confirmed the accuracy of their self-reported emissions data during meetings with the regulatory agency this past summer.
“We take this matter very seriously,” said Vantage’s site leader, Drew Richardson. “Not only because we have been a long-standing corporate resident of Gurnee, but because many of us call this community our home for ourselves and our families.”
“We abide by all federal standards as we serve healthcare providers,” added Lara Simmons, president of Medline’s quality division.
However, abiding by existing federal standards may not be enough. Even air pollution produced within the legal limits can still be dangerous to the public at large, especially since the EPA has not updated its regulations following the recent, heavily-vetted research demonstrating that ethylene oxide can pose health risks at lower levels of exposure than had previously been thought.
With all this in mind, many are troubled that the Chicago Tribune’s exposé represented the first time that the EPA’s findings about Medline and Vantage had been shared with the public. Federal, state, and local officials all failed to warn residents in the areas surrounding the facilities prior to the article’s publication, and they have declined to explain why.
These omissions have not been limited to the general public. While the EPA reportedly notified Waukegan Mayor Sam Cunningham and his staff about the risks on Aug. 21, Gurnee Mayor Kristina Kovarik claimed to have received no such warnings.
What Will Be Done?
The Tribune’s report about the potential health hazards associated with the Medline and Vantage facilities – and the failure of government officials to adequately inform the public about them – has prompted US Rep. Brad Schneider and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to dispatch letters to the EPA requesting a Sterigenics-level response in Lake County. What will actually be done to remedy the situation in the affected areas, however, remains to be seen.
For its part, Vantage has issued a statement saying that the company plans to test pollution levels around the facility’s perimeter and to reduce its ethylene oxide emissions.
But neither the federal nor the state EPA would commit to testing for ethylene oxide gas in the areas surrounding Medline and Vantage. The US EPA also has no plans to incorporate the Vantage emissions data that it had initially omitted in order to recalculate the cancer risks for Lake County.
Illinois Personal Injury Attorneys
If you live or work near Medline Industries in Waukegan or Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee and believe that you have developed cancer from exposure to ethylene oxide gas emissions, please contact GWC Law for a free consultation with one of our Illinois personal injury attorneys. Call us today at (312) 464-1234 or click here to chat with one of our representatives at any time.