“My Family Has Been Plagued': Willowbrook Residents Raise Cancer Concerns About Sterigenics at Senate Committee Hearing

Sterigenics maintains the company's emissions of ethylene oxide have been within legal limits.

Hundreds of Willowbrook residents voiced their concerns Friday at an Illinois Senate committee hearing about what they said are dangerous emissions produced by the Sterigenics facility in their community. 

A woman who lives less than a mile from the company described persistent issues her oldest daughter has experienced for years, insisting it's all because of the emission of ethylene oxide, a gas used by Sterigenics to sterilize medical devices.

"Since she was in second grade, she started to experience coughing fits," said Gabriela Rios, a Willowbrook resident. "Fits so violent and uncontrollable that it would end up with her vomiting. This would happen every day, in the daytime, at night when she was sleeping, in school."

The Illinois Senate Environment and Conservation Committee hearing in downtown Chicago was the first of many to allow members of the public to share their concerns about the facility in Willowbrook.

The committee's website listed more than 1,700 witness slips against Sterigenics and about 13 in support of the company, though not everyone will get the chance to speak. 

After the meeting, Willowbrook residents detailed plans to deliver a petition to Gov. Bruce Rauner, asking him to shut down the facility. 

"I had breast cancer," said Jeanne Hochhalter, who grew up and lived in Burr Ridge. "Unknown reasons, no genetic history, no bracket genes and a myriad of other health effects. It all clicked in August, when this all came out."

"My home is located the closest to this facility, and my family has been plagued with several health problems," Gabriela Tejeda-Rios said. 

Backlash against the company has been brewing for months with concerns about the emission of ethylene oxide, but the company maintains these emissions have been within legal limits.

"It is important to note that EO occurs naturally. There is far more EO produced within our own bodies than the EPA characterizes as a 'risk level' in its IRIS risk assessment," read a joint statement from the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois, iBio and the American Chemistry Council. "Indeed, the risk value used is far below levels found in nature and is 19,000 times lower than the normal, naturally-created levels of EO in the human body."

The companies called an Aug. 22 report about ethylene oxide "scientifically flawed," noting the agency that wrote the initial report clarified it to say it "is based on assumptions that are unrealistic and worst-case measurements that are not appropriate for regulatory decision-making purposes." 

"We firmly believe that Willowbrook residents have a right to live and work in a safe and healthy environment," the statement read. "Unfortunately, an array of inaccurate and misleading information about ethylene oxide (EO) sterilization and the Sterigenics facility has raised understandable yet unfounded fears among the public that may quickly lead to real harm for patients in Illinois and throughout the country." 

Tejeda-Rios said she thinks there are too many similar stories from local residents for the findings not to be true. 

"There are just far too many stories, far too many instances that are the same to ignore," she said. "It cannot be a coincidence."

"Please help us shut them down," Hochhalter said, "and thank you for your continued support."

The Senate committee will have another hearing on Nov. 14 in Springfield.

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