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The poisoning of Willowbrook

Wednesday, Sep 19, 2018 - Posted by Rich Miller

* Background is here. Ted McClelland at Chicago Magazine

If you call up the 2014 National Air Toxins Assessment map, which estimates the risk of cancer for residents of every census tract in the United States, and type in “Chicago, IL,” you’ll see a dark patch of blue over the southwest suburb of Willowbrook:

That’s the location of Sterigenics International, a company that uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical products like surgical trays and gowns. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to the gas can “result in respiratory irritation and lung injury, headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, shortness of breath, and cyanosis. Chronic exposure has been associated with the occurrence of cancer, reproductive effects, mutagenic changes, neurotoxicity, and sensitization.”

Indeed, according to the NATA map, residents of Willowbrook had a cancer risk of 300 in a million, specifically as a result of exposure to ethylene oxide emitted by Sterigenics. That’s the highest score anywhere in the Chicago area, and ten times higher than the vast majority of census tracts, which ran a risk of 30 in a million.

In fact, I searched the entire map of the United States, and the only place I found that exceeded Willowbrook’s cancer risk was St. John the Baptist, Louisiana, in the state’s notorious “cancer alley” of oil refineries and petrochemical processors.


* The governor’s original response seems somewhat inadequate

Sterigenics is owned by a private equity firm co-founded by Gov. Bruce Rauner. Rauner left the firm in 2012 before running for governor.

On Tuesday, Rauner urged people to remain calm.

“I believe that company took the actions themselves, put in control equipment to reduce the emissions…So, this is, and the federal government, I wish they said it earlier, but they said it, I guess, in the last day or two, they put out a letter. This is not an emergency, this is not a public health immediate crisis, this is something we’re managing,” he said.

But the mayor of Willowbrook, who can see the company outside his office window, calls the situation urgent.

“It’s an emergency to me because all my citizens are concerned as well as all the employees here and I’m sure all the people who work in this area are and I am,” Frank Trilla said.

* Related…

* Burr Ridge residents raise concerns about Sterigenics chemical releases: “As of three weeks ago, I am basically terrified for my daughters’ health,” S. K. Pedersen, a Burr Ridge woman, said at a Village Board meeting. “I have had cancer. My husband’s had cancer. Just about everyone on our street, Elm, has had cancer.”

* Residents outraged by EPA pollution report call for Willowbrook Sterigenics plant to close: Hearing that the company could not be immediately shut down because it was operating within the rules of its permits issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did not satisfy them. “You need to be in that facility monitoring what is going on,” said Elizabeth DiCriscio, who lives in Wauconda, but works in Willowbrook. “Kids are getting sick. I have headaches everyday of my life. I have asthma. I have eye pain.”


  1. - Real - Wednesday, Sep 19, 18 @ 1:08 pm:

    Is it me or does it seem like the same type of issue with the vet home? The longer Rauner waits eventually someone will get sick or die and it will be linked to this facility he says is no health crisis?

  2. - wordslinger - Wednesday, Sep 19, 18 @ 1:09 pm:

    –…this is something we’re managing,” (Rauner said).

    How so? Please be specific.

    Because vague babblin’ ain’t much comfort, after Quincy, squeeze the beast, higher ed, backlog of bills…..

  3. - @misterjayem - Wednesday, Sep 19, 18 @ 1:13 pm:

    “This is not an emergency, this is not a public health immediate crisis, this is something we’re managing.”

    No spin to blame this one on Tammy Duckworth?

    Your team is slippin’ Bruce.

    – MrJM

  4. - unspun - Wednesday, Sep 19, 18 @ 1:17 pm:

    After his experience vulturing private nursing homes and putting the elderly in peril, the Quincy Veterans home, and now this cancer corridor, perhaps his campaign “reboot” should have included a skull and crossbones insignia. “We’re managing” is, well, baloney.

  5. - DuPage Bard - Wednesday, Sep 19, 18 @ 1:20 pm:

    Sterigenics has done everything well, the team had an excellent response to the issue, we’ve have done great work there.

    This ad is going to hurt Bruce. You thought you had it bad once the Quincy ad comes out, that’s downstate. This is in the heart of your voters, the suburbs. You’re House minority leader lives in that district. I’m sure you carried that district bigly in 2014.
    This story will make more network covered 5, 6 and 10 news. You should shut it down until the investigation is complete.

  6. - A Jack - Wednesday, Sep 19, 18 @ 1:21 pm:

    Perhaps some of the other candidates should do an ad about Rauner owning the plant and being in charge of the Illinois EPA.

    This is like a Koch brothers’ dream: controlling the agency that regulates their polluting industry.

  7. - Loop Lady - Wednesday, Sep 19, 18 @ 1:27 pm:

    Bruce, really? Start packing…

  8. - Chris P. Bacon - Wednesday, Sep 19, 18 @ 1:29 pm:

    Combine this with the Quincy veterans’ home disaster, plus Rauner’s other past experience with his GTCR firm, i.e., the nursing home bust-outs, the price gouging on a critical life-saving drug for infants born with a heart defect, etc., and one might get the idea there is some kind of pattern here.

  9. - Cubs in '16 - Wednesday, Sep 19, 18 @ 1:33 pm:

    What’s the deer population in Willowbrook?

  10. - Old and In The Way - Wednesday, Sep 19, 18 @ 1:44 pm:

    Who said Illinois was not business friendly? Seems like we are pretty friendly with those polluters who are either owned by the billionaires or donate to their party.

  11. - Albany Park Patriot - Wednesday, Sep 19, 18 @ 2:05 pm:

    So people like Rauner can reap the profits of firms like these, they can brag about what great businessmen they are and use that to run for political office-but when it’s time to answer for any of the consequences of bad corporate behavior or bad consequences, they get to take a powder. What a wonderful system for people like Rauner.

  12. - stateandlake - Wednesday, Sep 19, 18 @ 2:15 pm:

    Things aren’t looking that whippy in Waukegan/North Chicago, either.

  13. - anon - Wednesday, Sep 19, 18 @ 2:34 pm:

    *Edward McClelland’s piece was in Chicago Magazine, rather than the Chicago Reader.

  14. - Matts - Wednesday, Sep 19, 18 @ 2:34 pm:

    I think the hardest thing for Rauner to do, aside from telling the truth, is to be ‘reassuring’ to citizens. Hopeless.

  15. - Good at Bidness - Wednesday, Sep 19, 18 @ 2:35 pm:

    And just to think the MAGA folks and business groups think we don’t have enough pollution.

  16. - Stark - Wednesday, Sep 19, 18 @ 2:58 pm:

    It’s pretty simple folks, the billionaires buy their political offices to gut oversight of cancer-causing places like this so they get more profit money. They then fight for and fund politicians that want to lower their taxes so they can keep more money from the causing of literal cancer in their communities. Brilliant that more and more they’re the only class of people effectively allowed to run for Governor in large states. /s

  17. - Jibba - Wednesday, Sep 19, 18 @ 3:13 pm:

    I totally agree that this known source needs to be addressed, if it has not been already, and the data mentioned this source specifically. But it is impossible to ignore the proximity of Argonne National Lab, nor the known and unknown disposal sites for radioactive materials from U of Chicago nuclear pile as possible unknown sources. How many lab employees live here? Maybe a good number.

  18. - Stumpy's bunker - Wednesday, Sep 19, 18 @ 5:30 pm:

    A forensic audit of the company would be interesting, in that it would show Rauner’s profit and the eventual footprints of some of those dollars (aka Raunerbucks)to the ILGOP.

  19. - Chicago 20 - Wednesday, Sep 19, 18 @ 7:19 pm:

    At least the owners have deep pockets.

Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.

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