CHICAGO (CBS) — Numerous levels of government — from mayor to state lawmaker to members of Congress — on Friday demanded the EPA immediately take action against Willowbrook sterilization company Sterigenics.
In response to a CBS 2 Investigator report that detailed workers’ charges that the company was improperly releasing cancer-causing chemicals, both U.S. Illinois senators and four congressmen are demanding the federal EPA and the company answer questions about their operations.
Congressman Dan Lipinski is concerned about recent U.S. EPA testing — air monitoring canisters, which showed results as high as 350 times the amount of ethylene oxide than what should be emitted.
“All the EPA testing suggests that we are facing a serious public health threat,” Lipinski said.
The lawmakers are also alarmed at what former Sterigenics workers told CBS 2 in exclusive interviews published last Sunday.
“I don’t think the neighborhood knew what was in that building. Because I think if they did, they would have tried to shut them down,” Lipinski said
Former workers say the company knew about the dangers to the community of ethylene oxide emissions and the explosiveness of the chemical.
“EO is not only harmful to a human, it’s also highly explosive,” one worker said. “We were told in a meeting once, that worse case scenario if that place blew, there’d be a hole in the ground, a mile in diameter.”
There was an explosion, in 2004, at Sterigenics’ California facility. A safety shortcut was blamed, and four workers were injured.
That same operation in 1991 was fined $1.1 million for failing to notify residents of all the ethylene oxide it had released. EO has been linked to causing several types of cancer.
Now, the Willowbrook operation faces allegations of releasing more of the chemical than what they actually disclosed.
“It’s hard because I worked there,” one worker said. “It’s hard to sleep at night.”
The dangers were outlined 20 years ago. In 1998 in a Securities and Exchange Commission report, the company laid out the cancer dangers. It warned if the government imposes more regulations, it could face more fines and force the company to alter or cease operations.
Those ethylene oxide-related cancer concerns are real for people like Matt Haller, who is living near the plant. He has stage 4 stomach cancer.
“I can’t move and can’t do anything. It’s just awful,” Haller said.
Katherine Howard also has stomach cancer.
“It didn’t have to happen,” Howard said. “I didn’t have to get it.”
Jeanne Hochalter has breast cancer.
“That’s unforgivable. Enough is enough with this,” she said.
Sterigenics released a statement today saying they operate well within regulatory limits and shutting it down based on incomplete data taken out of context would set an extremely bad precedent. The statement also points to the U.S. EPA’s finding that there are other not-yet-identified sources of ethylene oxide in the community.
Sources said EPA officials will be in the community talking to residents next week.
In a letter to the company, the members of the Illinois congressional delegation–U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth , and U.S. Representatives Bill Foster, Dan Lipinski, Brad Schneider and Sean Casten–said:
“It is unacceptable that the community of Willowbrook and employees of Sterigenics live in constant fear of developing cancer. While a medical sterilization facility—a company that proudly presents the trademark of ‘Safeguarding Global Health’ ™—is responsible for this local health crisis.”