Gas linked to increased cancer risk is essential to sterilization, manufacturing processes, groups say
By JERRY NOWICKI
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – Business and industry groups are pushing back against legislative efforts to widely ban the use of ethylene oxide, a known cancer-causing gas, in most Illinois communities.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, chronic exposure to the gas can cause increased cancer risks, reproductive effects and other major medical problems, while short-term exposure may result in respiratory irritation and lung injury, headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and shortness of breath.
Representatives of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, Illinois Chamber of Commerce, Illinois Biotechnology Industry Organization and the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois sent a letter to General Assembly members this week to “express our serious concerns and opposition to any additional efforts to further restrict or ban the use of ethylene oxide in Illinois.”
The group said ethylene oxide, which is used in medical supply sterilization and some manufacturing processes, is “a significant building block in the creation of an exhaustive list of life-improving products … including essential plastics and pharmaceuticals to cosmetics and clothing,” and is “the only acceptable method of sterilization for many medical devices.”
In July, a spokesperson for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency said there are 26 facilities in Illinois permitted to use or emit ethylene oxide.
“The economic hit of an ethylene oxide ban would be significant, with an initial loss of at least 1,500 jobs in Illinois, including unionized positions,” the business and industry groups said in their letter.
The groups also pointed out that businesses have already begun making infrastructural changes to their facilities to comply with Senate Bills 1852 and 1854, a pair of bills hailed by both parties as the most stringent ethylene oxide regulations in the nation when Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed them into law in June.
“While our organizations opposed these restrictions, the impacted companies have been extremely responsive in compliance. Major renovation and retooling work is currently underway at significant expense. These improvements are ongoing and take considerable time to implement as much of the new equipment must custom-built and installed,” the letter writers said.
But, since the signing of those bills, Pritzker and lawmakers from both parties have publicly vowed to further address ethylene oxide emissions in response to public outcry from activists in the DuPage and Lake County areas which are home to ethylene oxide emitters.
“It’s clear now that the legislation was insufficient, so during the upcoming veto session, the governor expects that the General Assembly will strengthen the law they passed this spring. (Pritzker) is committed to signing the measure and the administration will strictly enforce it,” spokesperson Jordan Abudayyeh said in a statement.
Much of the recent public outcry centered on a consent order between the state, DuPage County and Sterigenics, a Willowbrook ethylene oxide sterilization company. That legal agreement created a pathway to reopening for Sterigenics, which has been closed by the IEPA since February amid revelations of an increased cancer risk in the area by up to 10 times the normal rate. Last week, the IEPA issued a construction permit to the company, allowing it to install the necessary equipment that must be in place before it reopens.
For those in the area surrounding Sterigenics, the prospect of the company reopening has heightened the calls for greater regulation, even from the lead House sponsor of one of the June laws which strictly limit ethylene oxide emissions from the facility and others like it.
That sponsor is House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, a Western Springs Republican who is now sponsoring House Bill 3885, which would give home rule municipalities the authority to ban ethylene oxide emissions within their borders.
Stop Sterigenics, the grassroots group that has led the public outcry against the DuPage County company, has found allies in Stop ETO in Lake County, another grassroots group in the northeastern Illinois area which houses ethylene oxide emitters Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee and Medline Industries in Waukegan.
They are championing House Bill 3888, a newly-filed bill by Rep. Rita Mayfield, a Democrat from Waukegan.
That measure provides that by 2021, no sterilization company could use ethylene oxide within five miles of a region with a population density of at least 10 residents per square mile, or within the same distance from a school or day care. Hospitals using the gas would have to meet the same requirements by January 2022, while critical access hospitals would have until 2025. Companies outside of those categories would be allowed to emit no more than 30 pounds of ethylene oxide annually.
The General Assembly is expected to take the new bills up for consideration when they return for veto session on Oct. 28.
In their letter, however, the business and industry representatives argued the already-passed regulations have been in place for only three months, and adding to them would be burdensome on the companies that fall under the new regulatory act.
“Unfortunately, these facilities, while in good faith to comply with the strict regulations, are now hit with the possibility of being completely shut down. While facilities haven’t had the opportunity to complete their work (and gather new data on emissions), some legislators want to stop these facilities from either reopening or remaining open. This proposed action is wrong and can only be described as an unsubstantiated movement of the ‘goal posts.’ These companies are making a good faith effort to comply with the law, making it fundamentally unfair to change the rules, a mere three months into the process,” the letter said.