Cheap Seats 2019
Anarchy Ascendant - 02/20
By Rich Trzupek
We live in a complex world. Too often journalists and public figures who clearly don’t understand the complexities of this issue or that resort to simplistic messaging that badly distorts those complexities. When they do they do a disservice to their audience and undermine the rule of law. Sterigenics’ Willowbrook facility is the latest victim of this irresponsible behavior, with the Chicago Tribune and legislators like Dan Lipinski mindlessly persecuting a company engaged in a service – the sterilization of medical equipment – that is vital to health care providers.
It is or course true that ethylene oxide, the chemical Sterigenics and other facilities use, has been identified as a carcinogen. It is one of 1,079 cancer causing agents currently identified by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. Some of these are mostly man-made, like formaldehyde and acrolein. Some are natural, like caffeine and the betel nut. With rare exceptions like beryllium and plutonium, few are potent enough to cause cancer by themselves in low doses. Cancer risk is cumulative in other words. It’s about hundreds of compounds that most everyone is exposed to, in very small amounts, every day.
The United States EPA was charged by Congress with developing regulations to limit emissions of what are known as hazardous air pollutants (or “HAPs”) to levels that are deemed protective of human health and the environment. Congress identified 189 airborne HAPs when the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 were signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. Two of these were subsequently deleted from the list, leaving the 187 HAPs that the EPA and state agencies regulate. Many of these, like ethylene oxide, are carcinogens. Some are more potent, some less so. Most are emitted in far greater amounts by far more sources than ethylene oxide.
For example, according to the latest National Emissions Inventory EPA identified 608,736 sources of benzene, 586,737 sources of formaldehyde, 566,965 sources of carbon black and 16,557 sources of airborne lead. All of these compounds are carcinogens.
The EPA identified 1,176 sources of ethylene oxide emissions, one of which – Sterigenics – has been singled out for special treatment because a reporter on the Chicago Tribune and some opportunistic politicians have decided that this facility somehow presents a unique danger to the surrounding community, while they simultaneously appear to remain blissfully ignorant of the millions of other sources of carcinogens around us.
One of these, the internal combustion engine, is known to be a source of trace amounts of ethylene oxide as well. When Sterigenics increased its level of control and some subsequent air sampling showed somewhat higher levels of ethylene oxide in the ambient a reasonable person might conclude that there are some other sources of ethylene oxide (like maybe all those cars and trucks on the highway) that are in play. Not the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune. Their particular blinders allow them to only see one source of ethylene oxide in Willowbrook: Sterigenics.
The Trib and pols like Lipinski howl that Sterigenics should be shut down. One can almost forgive the Trib. They’re in a dying business that few people trust any longer, so grand-standing has become a necessary part of their playbook. But it’s revolting to hear elected officials urging abandonment of the rule of law.
The EPA has promulgated over one hundred rules to limit emissions of ethylene oxide and other HAPs from facilities all across the nation. The Illinois EPA incorporated those rules into a permit that it duly issued Sterigenics. Sterigenics met its permit obligations and followed the law. If the opportunists in Tribune Tower and Springfield believe that EPA is not and has not promulgated rules that are sufficient to protect the public from ethylene oxide exposure or exposure to any other HAP then they should get to work with the agency to change the rules, not demonize a company that has been following them.