By Bob Skolnik
Some area residents are especially concerned about the risk of cancer caused by exposure to a gas called ethylene oxide that is emitted from a facility in Willowbrook about 10 miles southwest of Riverside-Brookfield High School.
A number of local parents send their kids to the Diamond Edge Academy for baseball skills training. Diamond Edge is located less than 100 yards from one of the two Sterigenics facilities emitting ethylene oxide, which the EPA said might cause cancer after long-term exposure.
Riverside resident Nilsa Sweetser's 8-year-old son had been going to Diamond Edge Academy, but doesn't any longer.
"I am definitely as a parent concerned," Sweetser said. "We have pulled back on him attending trainings at the facility, and we will not be returning there because of the health concerns."
Cancer risk in the area within a few miles of the two Sterigenics facilities in Willowbrook is well above average, according to a map on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website.
The risk in the immediate area of the plant are among the highest in the nation, ranking behind the so-called "cancer alley" area of Louisiana along an area of the Mississippi River just south of Baton Rouge, which is filled with chemical plants.
The high cancer risk levels near the Sterigenics facility were first reported by the Chicago Tribune in late August. Sterigenics uses ethylene oxide, a colorless gas, to sterilize medical equipment and supplies and has been emitting the gas in Willowbrook since 1984.
In July Sterigenics installed new scrubbers, which are supposed to reduce the emissions of ethylene oxide by as much as 90 percent.
The cancer risk in the census tract where the Sterigenics facilities are located in Willowbrook is 282 per million, significantly higher than would normally be expected. However, there is no apparent immediate risk from short-term exposure to ethylene oxide.
Kris Fauske, owner of Willowbrook-Burr Ridge Sports Performance LLC, where Diamond Edge is one of nine tenants, said in response to the concern he has had air-quality testing done both inside and outside of the facility, and should have results back within a week.
"We're being very proactive," said Fauske.
Cancer risk in Riverside, Brookfield, and North Riverside seem to hover in the range of about 50 per million, according the EPA's 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment map. Those risk levels are somewhat higher than many other areas in the Chicago metropolitan area, which typically hover around 30 or 40 cases per million.
Approximately 50 concerned people, including two state representatives and Riverside Village President Ben Sells, attended a meeting last week at the Riverside Public Library to learn more about the issue. They heard from four activists from the Stop Sterigenics Group during a Sept. 26 meeting hosted by the Indivisible West Suburban Action League.
The distance ethylene oxide can travel varies with the wind speed and the temperature, said Sri Rao, a spokesman for the Stop Sterigenics group and a former teacher at Riverside-Brookfield High School.
"We've seen everything from two miles to 10 miles," Rao told the Landmark.
The activists are also concerned about ethylene oxide emissions from the Ele Corporation, a one-facility specialty chemical plant located at 7847 W. 47th Street in McCook.
Cancer risk levels are higher than normal in Lyons, registering 90 per million according to the EPA's 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment map, which specifies ethylene oxide as the main risk factor.
Congressman Dan Lipinski (D-Western Springs) is concerned about the McCook plant. Late last week, Lipinski issued a statement saying that the EPA recently issued a report showing elevated cancer risk in McCook, Lyons, Stickney, Brookfield and Riverside due to emissions of ethylene oxide, and that the Ele Corporation plant in McCook is the main source of those emissions.
But Lipinski also said that actual levels of ethylene oxide may be lower than what the EPA report showed. Lipinski wrote a letter to the general manager of the McCook plant urging further testing.
"These need to be confirmed by more detailed testing, so I am calling on the Ele Corporation to carry out such tests as soon as possible," Lipinski wrote. "If the tests show that there is a public health threat, the company needs to take immediate action to address it."
On Saturday Scott Brunson, the vice-president for operations at Ele Corporation, sent Lipinski a letter in response, stating that additional tests will be done. He said, however, that Ele's emissions of ethylene oxide "are well below its applicable permit emissions limits and reported estimated emissions, and are protective to the community."
McCook Mayor Jeffrey Tobolski, who represents the Cook County Board's 16th District, says that the ethylene oxide has been used at the plant for at least 20 years and is used in a way that renders it mostly inert.
Tobolski said further testing should be done and has asked for help from the Cook County Department of Public Health and the county's Department of Environmental Sustainability.
He said that the Illinois EPA is going to conduct a cancer cluster study to see if there are abnormally high cancer rates in the area. But Tobolski didn't seem too worried about health risks from ethylene oxide in McCook.
"This chemical has been in use in McCook for 20 years and my people live to be 100, and there's just nobody in McCook who is dying of any type of cancer," Tobolski said.
This article has been changed to clarify that the EPA map does not cite actual cases of cancer. The NATA map "estimates long-term risks -- those that may occur from breathing air containing elevated levels of air toxics continuously for many decades. It does not estimate short-term (acute) or intermediate risks. The article also now includes additional information and a comment from the owner of Willowbrook-Burr Ridge Sports Performance LLC in Willowbrook and to correct a statement about ethylene oxide. The gas is not odorless. According to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the gas smells like ether at toxic levels.