Residents near Willowbrook plant feeling trapped by toxins in the air

By Kevin Beese Staff reporter

Emissions from Sterigenics have raised concerns from residents of southwest Cook and DuPage communities.

Gabriella Rios buys organic when she goes to the grocery store. She has her kids in groups and extracurricular activities – all to keep her family as healthy as possible.

“What’s the use?” she questioned. “It may not make any difference. They have been breathing the air here for 10 years.”

The Willowbrook mom voiced a concern that has gripped residents of Darien, Willowbrook and other southwest Cook and DuPage suburbs ever since information was divulged about emissions of ethylene oxide from Sterigenics, a sterilization service in Willowbrook.

Both the National Air Toxics Assessment and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry identified ethylene oxide, a known carcinogen, to be in the air in the Willowbrook area and an issue that needs to be addressed.

Rios, who lives a half-block from the sterilization company, said the health effects of living near the firm are on her mind 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Neringa Zymancius said she just wants for her 4-year-old not to complain of his “tummy hurting” and her 2-year-old to be able to run without coughing.

“I would like them to be able to be kids again,” she said, with tears welling in her eyes.

Lauren Kaeseberg said she feels guilty for making her husband move to Darien, the town where she grew up.

She noted that her mother, who had a store in Darien and would sit outside her business, at times, for 12 hours a day, died of cancer eight years ago. Her mother’s sister, who lived in a different community, is still alive.

“I still feel guilty about moving to Darien,” Kaeseberg said. “I fear my family living here.”

The Darien resident said she would love to move, but knows that houses are not selling in the area these days. She said she knows of a woman who put her house up for sale and had two showings scheduled.

“The Realtors called and asked how close the house was to Sterigenics,” Kaeseberg said. “When she told them it was one mile away from Sterigenics, both showings were cancelled.”

Zymancius said she also pushed for her family to relocate to Darien.

Concerns about emissions from Sterigenics, a sterilization company in Willowbrook, have brought (from left) Neringa Zymancius, Lauren Kaeseberg and Gabriella Rios together with other concerned residents of the southwest suburbs. (Kevin Beese/Chronicle Media photos)

“I wanted my kids to have a 1980s kind of living. I wanted them on bikes, going to the neighbors’ houses,” she said. “What did I do? How could I have made a better decision? … What have I done to my kids?”

Rios said her children, who used to be active outdoors, are now homebodies.

“I don’t let my children play outside,” she said.

She said she would regularly walk in the neighborhood, but that has stopped as well because “we can’t be outside.”

Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Rios remembers her dad telling her to get out of the neighborhood. She said she never imagined that a home in the southwest suburbs would not be a good move for her family.

Zymancius said she and other area residents feel trapped because their homes would not sell now if they put them on the market.

Zymancius said while the primary attention has been on Willowbrook and Darien, the range that emissions from Sterigenics reaches includes Western Springs, Burr Ridge, Hinsdale, Downers Grove, Westmont, Clarendon Hills, Indian Head Park, La Grange and LaGrange Park.

She said she hopes the company will up and move, realizing that it is no longer wanted and that it does not belong in a residential area.

Sterigenics points to independent, third-party test results of air emissions that show emissions are far below U.S. and Illinois Environmental Protection permissible levels for ethylene oxide.

“Unfortunately, the community has been exposed to a lot of inaccurate and misrepresented information and we are committed to getting the real facts to residents, who, based on what they have been hearing and reading, are understandably concerned,” Kathleen Hoffman, Sterigenics’ senior vice president of global environment, health and safety, and technical services, said in a statement.

“While we have been in compliance with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Illinois EPA air permit requirements since the plant was built and ethylene oxide emissions have always been well below permitted levels, the fact is – in testing and following our voluntary upgrades to the facility in July – our controls are removing 99.6 percent of the facilities’ emissions,” she added.

Hoffman said the independent testing show that Sterigenics’ facilities are safely operated.

“Nonetheless, we agree residents deserve transparency; and we are committed to continuing our ongoing stack monitoring to further reassure residents of their safety,” Hoffman said.

She noted the company’s work is instrumental in preventing life-threatening infections in millions of hospital patients across the country, including Illinois, every year.

“’Safeguarding Global Health’ is more than our tagline; it is our mission,” Hoffman said. “We would never knowingly put that mission, our employees or the people in our communities at risk.”

Sterigenics officials noted that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s earlier report did not indicate an immediate health threat or emergency situation.

“The initial ATSDR report on EO emissions in Willowbrook was clearly not intended – as evidenced by their clarification seven days later – to create the concerns in the community that it did,” Hoffman said.