Accusations fly as residents near Sterigenics fear chemical exposure

Willowbrook residents described sick children gasping for air and a disconnected government at a hearing Friday concerning the Sterigenics company, which officials are investigating over emissions of a cancer-causing gas.

The issue has roiled the Nov. 6 election campaign, with Gov. Bruce Rauner and state agencies taking heat for not informing people promptly about risks from exposure to ethylene oxide, a chemical used to sterilize medical equipment.

Gabriela Rios, a mother of two, lives a few blocks from the plant in southeast DuPage County. She told state lawmakers Friday at a hearing held by two House committees how her oldest daughter fell ill with mysterious coughing fits and vomiting. Later, her younger daughter had to be rushed to the hospital when "she was struggling to breathe and turned purple," Rios said.

Rios, an attorney, said she herself has suffered heart palpitations, trouble breathing and a ringing in her ears that "makes me feel like I'm going insane.

"Every single symptom my family and I have experienced has been associated with ethylene oxide," Rios said. "I live with constant fear and guilt."

In August 2018, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concluded that ethylene oxide concentrations in the air pose an elevated risk for residents near the Sterigenics facility.

A Sterigenics official said the agency's report was released without proper context and had exposed Willowbrook residents to inaccurate information. The company stated that independent tests show emissions are below permitted levels.

Conflicting information on the hazards has confused residents and made the situation worse, Willowbrook Mayor Frank Trilla said.

"Either it's safe to breathe or it's not," he said.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office is investigating, and spokeswoman Eileen Boyce said Rauner's administration "hid information on the increased risks from the Sterigenics plant for over eight months. We then had to fight with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to get access to needed information."

The attorney general is seeking to close Sterigenics but does not have that authority yet. Boyce said further legal action was expected.

Rauner, a Winnetka venture capitalist who once had a business interest in Sterigenics, has defended his administration's handling of the crisis.

"Gov. Rauner has called for the Sterigenics' Willowbrook facility to pause operations until the U.S. EPA can bring some clarity to the health risks associated with ethylene oxide," spokeswoman Elizabeth Tomev said. "Today's legislative hearing reinforced that decision."

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