CHICAGO (CBS) – Another former worker at a local company accused of emitting high levels of a toxic chemical has come forward, describing how a cancer-causing gas would leak during plant operations and how he was told to mop up residue into the drainage system.
His account of practices at Sterigenics mirrors statements made by other former workers, in a CBS 2 Investigative report that aired earlier this month. Morales and other former workers say the company would allow the release of the cancer causing gas, ethylene oxide, without being filtered.
Mike Morales was fresh out of serving in the U.S. Marine Corps when he went to work for the company in Willowbrook. He worked there as a forklift driver in the early 2000s. One of his jobs, he said, was to clean out chambers used to sterilize medical equipment.
He said he would hose down a thick sludge-link residue after the equipment was treated with ethylene oxide. Morales said he would then squeegee the residue into the drain that led to the public sewer system.
“They just figured we would just go along with orders,” Morales said.
He said the plant had about a dozen sterilization chambers.
“The chambers would run different cycles,” Morales said. “They would leak gas a lot of times, I swear to God.”
He said he was even told to move a drum filled with the ethylene oxide gas outside the plant when it sprung a leak.
“It’d have a leak, and we’d take this Teflon tape to kinda, like, stop that leakage,” Morales said. “There’s an outside area right behind three chambers. It’s just hidden from the public.”
Morales wants the company investigated. He said he wanted to speak with CBS 2 Investigator Dave Savini after learning of other former workers coming forward, including those who gave sworn statements, all claiming the company took safety shortcuts.
These are claims that Sterigenics denies.
Morales says he is concerned about people who live near Sterigenics who have come forward with stories about cancers.
“I feel bad for these people,” said Morales. “I feel bad, like I found out about the one who’s dying of cancer, and he’s leaving his four-year-old son. That hurt me the most.”
Morales was referring to Matt Haller, who is battling stage 4 stomach cancer and is trying to create a few more memories with his wife and son.
Government leaders are now calling for both civil and criminal probes.
Illinois senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth want anyone with information about possible wrongdoing involving ethylene oxide to contact authorities. Duckworth said whistleblowers from the EPA have been coming forward, too.
“I didn’t know about it at the time, right now I feel really bad,” Morales said. “This is why I’m here, to make a difference, to help those people out.”
A recent test by the U.S. EPA and a private test by the Village of Willowbrook show ethylene oxide gas at levels which prompted the Illinois EPA to shut down the Sterigenics operation.
In federal court on Wednesday, a Sterigenics lawyer argued it was impossible that the high levels of the gas came from the company.
Residents are convinced the plant is responsible for cancers found in the area.
T.J. Kelleher lives in Darien, near the company, and he wants to know if the gas caused his wife’s cancer. He called it a “very vicious cancer” that took her life. He wonders about his neighbors, too.
“Within 150 feet, we have three instances of cancer,” Kelleher said. He said the woman who lives next door has breast cancer and do did another neighbor who recently moved away.
“This home was what we built and to think our children were raised here and to think the very thing that she loved the most, this house, could have killer her,” Kelleher said.
Julian Glick, 15, spent much of his childhood around Sterigenics – fishing at nearby Willow Pond and practicing soccer on nearby fields, including the field behind Gower Elementary School. Both have been the site of EPA air testing.
In sixth-grade, he was diagnosed with leukemia.
Every time I went to the hospital, I just had like a terrible feeling in my stomach,” he said. “I didn’t know if i was going to come back. I thought I was going to die. It was a very scary feeling.”
Now in remission, attending high school at Hinsdale South, he’s recently learned air testing shows elevated levels of ethylene oxide there, too.
He blames the chemical for causing his illness.
“I am very angry that this could have totally been preventable, and my life could be a lot better than it is because of the leukemia. It was bad and it sucks that it was preventable.”
Attorney Antonio Romanucci represents Glick and Kelleher.
He says the state and federal EPA failed residents by not routinely monitoring and testing air emissions and should have conducted testing years ago.
“They are emitting too much of a compound that causes cancer; they still can’t contain it,” he said.
He wants to know if the EPA knew about three additional warehouses–two in Burr Ridge and one near the main Willowbrook facility–especially since three whistleblowers say in these warehouses, sterilized product would “off-gas.” In the “off-gas” phase, the equipment sheds, or airs out, ethylene oxide.
Morales said he worked in one of those warehouses, for a period, too.
“There was not a ventilation room in there whatsoever,” said Morales, who wore a gas mask to protect him. The warehouse was located a few hundred yards from homes.
“It’s [the gas] going out. It’s going, spreading around,” an emotional Morales said.
He said residents had no idea.
Morales said he was injured on the job in 2001 and filed a worker’s compensation case, settling it for a few thousand dollars.
Today, U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski said new U.S. EPA test results show the highest ethylene oxide level to date, or 429 times the EPA action level.
He said it was a “disturbing trend.”
Sterigenics has denied off-gassing at the warehouses.
Sterigenics sent this statement to CBS 2, which we are posting in full here: