Gov. J.B. Pritzker and state lawmakers promote their newly adopted restrictions on cancer-causing ethylene oxide as the “toughest in the nation.”
Lobbyists for chemical companies and manufacturers go a step farther, calling the legal limits imposed by Illinois the “toughest in the world.”
Yet industry documents obtained by the Chicago Tribune show the state’s business community privately concluded the regulations are less stringent than they had feared.
Shortly after lawmakers close to the Pritzker administration unveiled their legislation during the spring, one of the state’s top business lobbyists assured colleagues it contained the “least concerning language to date,” according to notes from an April 30 meeting.
Donovan Griffith, director of governmental affairs at the Illinois Manufacturers Association, stressed that Pritzker and lawmakers had backed away from earlier versions fiercely opposed by business interests, according to a summary by another industry official at the meeting. Griffith’s presentation noted lawmakers had dropped plans to reconsider permits allowing companies to emit ethylene oxide. They also had scrapped what opponents considered “arbitrary emissions limits.”
The measure later approved unanimously by legislators and signed into law by Pritzker is largely identical to the draft Griffith described, a Tribune review found. Discovery of the lobbyist’s behind-the-scenes assessment comes as community groups demand a more aggressive response to elevated cancer risks faced by more than 67,000 Illinoisans living near facilities that use ethylene oxide.
“It’s disappointing to hear they think that way because it shows industry stakeholders aren’t taking this crisis seriously,” said Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, a nonprofit group that helped draft legislation opposed by Griffith and other business lobbyists. “They appear to be more interested in protecting the bottom line than negotiating a compromise that protects public health.”
Two companies affected by the new law, Sterigenics and Medline Industries, began making plans to comply with the new law months before Pritzker signed it.
Citing an unstable regulatory landscape and a failure to broker a new deal on its lease, Sterigenics announced last month it is permanently closing its sterilization plant in west suburban Willowbrook, less than two weeks after the company obtained a permit to overhaul the facility. Medline agreed to reduce emissions from its assembly plant in north suburban Waukegan to 150 pounds a year, down from 3,058 pounds reported by the company in 2014.
Faced with a public clamor for more action, state lawmakers are debating new legislation that would move the state more decisively away from the chemical. One bill, co-sponsored by 35 House members, would ban the use of ethylene oxide in densely populated areas or near schools, effectively forcing Medline to move or switch to alternative sterilization methods by the end of next year. Another would give home rule communities explicit authority to ban it on their own.
Pritzker supports both bills. “His goal is, remains and has always been to sign the strongest possible legislation,” Deputy Gov. Christian Mitchell said last week during an Illinois House committee hearing. “He is deeply committed to protecting all residents.”
With Sterigenics leaving Willowbrook, it is unclear if supporters of the legislation can muster enough votes to send either bill to the governor’s desk after the General Assembly returns to Springfield on Oct. 28.
A key supporter of the earlier measure that became law is reluctant to back a state-imposed ban. House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, a Western Springs Republican, so far has declined to co-sponsor the legislation affecting Medline and Vantage Specialty Chemicals, another Lake County facility, even though he repeatedly called for the closure of Sterigenics in his legislative district.
“I’m in favor of giving local communities that authority,” Durkin said after the hearing.
People living near Medline are concerned that regulators and lawmakers aren’t investigating the company with the same intensity that nudged Sterigenics to leave Willowbrook. Class and racial differences also are at issue: Neighborhoods at risk near Sterigenics are predominately white and upper-middle class, while those near Medline are mostly Latino and African American with lower median incomes.
“We know that ethylene oxide is a powerful carcinogen," Tea Tanaka, a leader of the Stop EtO in Lake County community group, told lawmakers. “But we have been repeatedly told by the local, state and federal governments that they don’t have the authority to act. You have the power to change that.”
One of the arguments against cracking down more forcefully on ethylene oxide pollution is Illinois already has a tough law on the books. Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, an Elmhurst Republican, suggested during the hearing that the law’s requirements had been tempered by Pritzker’s aides under pressure from industry.
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Emails obtained by the Stop Sterigenics community group and shared with lawmakers show top state officials were in regular contact with Sterigenics as the measure moved through the legislature. Changes suggested by Sterigenics are similar to methods officials have said could bring companies into compliance with the law, the emails show.
Mitchell, the deputy governor, and John Kim, director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, denied under questioning from Mazzochi that the Pritzker administration allowed industry groups to help craft the law.
Sterigenics declined to comment. Medline did not answer questions about the law, but in a statement said the company has “always made the safety of our employees and the community our top priority.”
Ryan McLaughlin, a spokesman for the Illinois Manufacturers Association, said Griffith’s remarks in the April meeting notes obtained by the Tribune were a “second-hand summary of a conversation, which is probably why the information got misrepresented."
During the meeting, organized by the National Association of Manufacturers, Griffith summarized Illinois’ initial response to elevated cancer risks in neighborhoods near Sterigenics and Medline. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had pinpointed the communities after determining ethylene oxide is far more dangerous than previously thought.
Meeting notes and related documents are posted online in a “members only” section maintained by the Ethylene Oxide Sterilization Association, another trade group that represents Medline and Sterigenics. The Tribune obtained the documents after a former Willowbrook resident discovered they could be accessed through a routine Google search.
For more than two years, meeting notes and slide presentations show, Medline, Sterigenics and other sterilization companies have been developing a campaign to raise doubts about the EPA’s latest review of ethylene oxide, often working with the manufacturers’ group and the American Chemistry Council, the chief trade group for the nation’s chemical industry.
The groups have attempted to enlist hospitals, manufacturers of medical products and members of Congress to help block any attempts to impose new federal or state restrictions, the documents show. Business groups also have supported industry-financed researchers who contend the chemical is significantly less dangerous than the EPA concluded.
Their chief target is a 2016 EPA report that determined even small concentrations of ethylene oxide can cause breast cancer, leukemia and lymphomas.
Agency scientists relied on the more alarming evaluation while compiling a report released last year on cancer risks from toxic air pollution. A Tribune analysis of EPA data in the report revealed that more than a half million Americans face risks exceeding agency guidelines, including thousands living near Medline and Sterigenics.
Most of the risk considered to be unacceptable by the EPA is from exposure to ethylene oxide.
Operators of commercial sterilization facilities contend they need to use ethylene oxide because it is a proven, government-approved method to sterilize medical equipment, in particular surgical kits that contain several types of materials, some of which can be damaged by alternatives such as steam or radiation.
“Medline is concerned that a ban of EtO in Illinois would cause an immediate public health crisis, limiting access to supplies necessary for lifesaving procedures,” said Jesse Greenberg, a company spokesman.
The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates medical devices, has said it does not mandate the use of any particular sterilization method. The FDA recently launched an “innovation challenge” intended to pressure companies to reduce or eliminate use of ethylene oxide.
During last week’s hearing, industry lobbyists defended ethylene oxide and the new Illinois law.
“It’s a wonderful product," said Mark Biel of the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois. “The holy grail of sterilization is ethylene oxide. It works 100% of the time, all the time. And that’s what you want when you go into a hospital.”
“We must give this new law time before we try to move on with more regulations,” said Griffith, the Illinois Manufacturers Association lobbyist.
But Margie Donnell, a member of the Stop Sterigenics community group, said industry executives and public health agencies have known for decades that ethylene oxide mutates genes and is a potent carcinogen.
“Remember they knew this chemical was dangerous and chose to emit it into our communities anyway,” Donnell said. “We know better, they know better and it’s time that they did better.”