Sterigenics sterilization company linked to cancer risks to ‘exit’ Willowbrook

By Jerry Nowicki Capitol News Illinois

Sterigenics, a medical supply sterilization company linked to increased cancer risk in the Willowbrook area, announced that it will exit its ethylene oxide operations in the DuPage County village. The company, which has been the subject of public backlash for more than a year, cited an ‘unstable legislative and regulatory landscape’ as its reason for closure. (Photo by Jerry Nowicki/Capitol News Illinois)

SPRINGFIELD — Sterigenics, a medical supply sterilization company linked to increased cancer risk in the DuPage County area, said Sept. 30 it plans to “exit its ethylene oxide sterilization operations in Willowbrook.”

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, chronic exposure to ethylene oxide, used in some medical supply sterilization and manufacturing processes, can cause increased cancer risks, negative reproductive effects and other major medical problems.

Since February, Sterigenics was prohibited from using the gas by a seal order from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which effectively forced its closure. A consent agreement between the state, DuPage County and Sterigenics approved earlier this month gave the company clearance to install the necessary equipment for its facility to reopen, however.

Sterigenics said in a press release Sept. 30 it could “not reach an agreement to renew the lease on its Quincy Street facility in Willowbrook in the present environment,” and blamed the “unstable legislative and regulatory landscape in Illinois” for its decision not to reopen.

There are two bills — House Bill 3885 and House Bill 3888 — currently moving through the Legislature that would, respectively, give home rule municipalities greater authority to ban emissions of the gas and phase out its use over a period of years. They are expected to be on the table for discussion when the General Assembly returns for fall veto session on Oct. 28.

Both measures would build upon Senate Bills 1852 and 1854, which were signed into law earlier this year creating what both sides agreed were the strictest regulations on ethylene oxide in the nation.

State Sen. John Curran, a Downers Grove Republican who was among the first public officials to speak out against the company, was the Senate sponsor of one of those regulatory bills. He also opposed any avenue for Sterigenics to reopen.

“This is tremendous news for the people of Willowbrook and the surrounding communities,” Curran said in a statement. “The risks involved with this facility reopening were simply too great to the public health. This announcement from Sterigenics is the direct result of the tireless advocacy of Stop Sterigenics and other community organizations who have proven once again that when we all work together, we will not be stopped. Now it is our job to remain vigilant in continuing to protect the health of those we serve.”

Stop Sterigenics is a grassroots group from the Willowbrook area that mobilized against the company. On Twitter, the group said Sterigenics “messed with the wrong community” in response to a tweeted statement from Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

“Sterigenics’ decision today represents a significant development, demonstrating that Illinoisans will come together to protect the health and wellbeing of all our residents — which has been my goal from the beginning,” Pritzker said in the statement. “From shutting down their operations in February to enacting the nation’s strongest law regulating ethylene oxide, we sent a clear, unified message that we will take all possible steps to protect residents’ health.”

Stop Sterigenics also said it would continue to push for further regulation of ethylene oxide. That was echoed by House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, of Western Springs, who is sponsoring the bill that would give home rule municipalities the authority to ban ethylene oxide emissions.

“Sterigenics got the message that we were never going to let them reopen their doors and poison our communities again,” said Durkin, who represents the Willowbrook area.

Sterigenics was just one of 26 facilities in Illinois permitted to use or emit ethylene oxide, an IEPA spokesperson said in July. Two others — Vantage Specialty Chemicals and Medline Industries — are located in Lake County and have faced increased pushback from community members in recent weeks, including from the activist group Stop ETO in Lake County.

Rep. Rita Mayfield, a Waukegan Democrat, represents that area and is carrying the bill that would phase out emissions of the gas in Illinois except in sparsely populated areas over a period of years.

Last week, Pritzker’s office said the governor was receptive to further regulation of ethylene oxide.

“Upon taking office, Governor Pritzker’s administration shut down Sterigenics,” said spokesperson Jordan Abudayyeh. “During the shutdown, the Governor asked the General Assembly to pass the strictest possible law on ethylene oxide emissions. 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. He is committed to signing the measure and the administration will strictly enforce it.”

In its release, Sterigenics blamed such regulatory talk for the company’s closure.

“Hospitals and patients around the United States and the world depend on Sterigenics for vital, sterilized medical products, and we cannot provide them with the certainty they require while operating safely in a state that will suspend operations of a business despite the company’s compliance with applicable rules and regulations,” the press release said.

Last week, 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 to oppose “any additional efforts to further restrict or ban the use of ethylene oxide in Illinois.”

“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,” they said in the letter.