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Deputy governor: Pritzker will sign new ethylene oxide regulations

Deputy governor: Pritzker will sign new ethylene oxide regulations

Lawmakers, advocates, industry spar at hearing

By JERRY NOWICKI
Capitol News Illinois
Jnowicki@capitolnewsillinois.com

SPRINGFIELD – Gov. J.B. Pritzker is ready to sign a pair of ethylene oxide regulatory bills should the General Assembly pass them, a representative of his office told a House committee Thursday.

Deputy Gov. Christian Mitchell said Pritzker “would be pleased to sign either or both” of two bills which pertain to emissions of ethylene oxide, a gas used in medical supply sterilization and manufacturing processes which has been designated as cancer-causing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

One of those bills would allow home rule municipalities to ban ethylene oxide emissions in their communities, the other would phase out the use of the chemical in Illinois, except in sparsely populated areas, over a period of years.

“Both of these, the administration believes, move in the right direction and we are supportive,” Mitchell said at a hearing of the House Energy and Environment Committee in Chicago.

Mitchell participated in one of four panels at the hearing alongside Illinois EPA Director John Kim. The other three panels included DuPage County lawmakers, members of activists groups who support the two bills, and representatives of the chemical industry, including a pair of scientists paid by trade associations.

The panel discussion featured a look back at the year-long process which led Sterigenics, a medical supply sterilization plant linked to an “elevated cancer risk” in the Willowbrook area by the federal Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, to abandon its plans to reopen.

Opponents of that facility said they would continue to fight for greater regulation of ethylene oxide despite the threat being eliminated in their community.

House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, a Western Springs Republican, said he would continue to push for House Bill 3885 to allow home rule municipalities to ban emissions of the chemical.

Rep. Rita Mayfield, a Waukegan Democrat, is pushing House Bill 3888, which provides that by 2021 no sterilization company could use ethylene oxide within five miles of a region with a population density of at least 10 residents per square mile, or within the same distance from a school or day care.

Hospitals using the gas would have to meet the same requirements by January 2022, while critical access hospitals would have until 2025. Companies outside of those categories would be allowed to emit no more than 30 pounds of ethylene oxide annually.

The regulations would add to a pair of bills passed earlier this year. Those are Senate Bill 1852, named for Willowbrook resident Matt Haller, who died of stomach cancer after being an outspoken opponent of Sterigenics, and Senate Bill 1854. Together the bills were widely touted as creating the most stringent ethylene oxide regulations in the world. 

Industry representatives said those regulations, which require stricter air monitoring at several locations surrounding ethylene oxide facilities, lower emissions and greater oversight, should be allowed to take effect before greater regulations are added.

Speaking at a panel just before the industry advocates, Stop Sterigenics founding member Margie Donnell said the industry has known of the dangers of the chemical since the 1980s, but chose to use it anyway.

Those in the industry said phasing out the gas would cost at least 1,500 jobs, stop sterilization processes for needed medical equipment and make several products more difficult to manufacture. They also said it’s the “gold standard” of sterilization and often cannot be substituted, though opponents disputed that claim.

One piece of medical equipment sterilized at a Medline Industries plant in Waukegan, the industry panel said, can be sterilized only by ethylene oxide per USEPA regulations. Later, they could not answer whether the company had applied to the USEPA for approval of alternative sterilization methods.

The scientists on the panel – Dr. Gail Charnley, paid by the medical technology trade association AdvaMed, and Dr. Kimberly Wise White, employed by the American Chemistry Council industry trade association – testified that the current USEPA threshold for allowable ethylene oxide exposure is not backed by science.

White argued that several things people are exposed to daily – such as water, apples, pears and red meat – can be dangerous or carcinogenic if overconsumed.

“We have a background level of ethylene oxide present in our bodies at all times,” White said. “We’re always going to be exposed to that regardless of whether or not we move away from ethylene oxide emissions at the facility level.”

Earlier at the hearing, Cary Shepherd, an attorney at the Northwestern Law School Environmental Advocacy Center who represents the grassroots advocacy group Stop ETO in Lake County, had a counterpoint.

“Simply because there is more than one source of a dangerous pollutant, that does not mean that we should not control the sources that we have the ability to do so,” he said.

Lawmakers seemed reluctant to accept the industry arguments as well.

“As a Legislature we have a responsibility for the health of the people in the state,” said Rep. Robyn Gabel, an Evanston Democrat. “And I know the studies vary greatly, that some say there’s no risk, some say there’s a lot of risk. But I feel like we have to act in the best interest of the community and really look at those studies that say there’s a great harm.”

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