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Illinois Community Searches for Answers Following Cancer Risk Report

Airborne ethylene oxide pollution is the reason federal officials are recommending the Illinois Department of Public Health investigate cancer risks in and around the Village of Willowbrook. (Pixabay)
Airborne ethylene oxide pollution is the reason federal officials are recommending the Illinois Department of Public Health investigate cancer risks in and around the Village of Willowbrook. (Pixabay)
August 29, 2018

WILLOWBROOK, Ill. – People in the Chicago suburb of Willowbrook are on edge after a federal report showing that the area faces some of the country's highest cancer risks from toxic air pollution.

According to the report, a local company uses ethlyene oxide, a gas the Environmental Protection Agency has said is more dangerous than previously thought. Sterigenics International offers sterilizing services for the medical, pharmaceutical and food industries. The report said exposure in communities near the plant means a cancer risk of more than nine times the national average.

Willowbrock Mayor Frank Tilla, whose office is across the street from the plant, said he's been scrambling for answers since the report came out late last week.

"They are not able to tell us as much emphatically about the long-term risks as the day-to-day risk, and that's where we're at," he said. "We're trying to assess what's good for our people that work here and all around here, and our residents, and that's our only focus."

The EPA links the easily absorbed chemical to breast and blood cancers. Nearly 20,000 people in southeast DuPage County live within a mile of the facility. Willowbrook and the EPA are to hold a public forum at 7 p.m. today at Ashton Place for anyone who wants to ask questions about the report.

In July, the company installed additional pollution controls to capture ethylene oxide emissions. While officials are claiming no immediate dangers, Trilla said even he's having difficulty making sense of the scientific report from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Well, people in the community are justly concerned," he said, "and the best way I'm dealing with it is trying to get the people that issued the report here so that they can answer the health-related questions."

According to the National Cancer Institute, exposure to ethylene oxide is highly irritating and induces nausea and vomiting. It has said chronic exposure can lead to several cancer types, including leukemia and stomach cancer.

The company has been owned by a private equity firm co-founded by Gov. Bruce Rauner, who left in 2012 to begin his campaign for office.

The ATSDR report is online at atsdr.cdc.gov, the village statement is at willowbrookil.org, and information on NCI's ethylene oxide is at pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.

Trimmel Gomes, Public News Service - IL