Ethylene oxide emissions down significantly at two Lake County companies, EPA data shows
Emissions of cancer-causing ethylene oxide from two Lake County businesses dropped significantly after controls were installed and now are well below permitted levels, a review of available data by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows.
The emissions may have resulted in excess cancer risk to residents near Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee and Medline Industries in Waukegan in the past, according to the federal agency, but they have since been reduced.
"Significant reductions in emissions and risk from both facilities have occurred" as the result of regulations implemented by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, according to U.S. EPA spokesman Joshua Singer.
Over the past year, both companies have been emitting less ethylene oxide than allowed under their respective permits, Singer said. Both must meet several monitoring, record keeping and reporting requirements.
Modeling shows the companies' impact on cancer risk is less than 100 in a million to the public, according to the U.S. EPA.
That and other information was presented by John Mooney, director of the EPA's air and radiation division, in response to a request in April from Lake County Board Chair Sandy Hart and Board of Health President Tim Sashko.
While considered a good overview, the EPA letter did not provide a health risk assessment, similar to that done for the now-closed Sterigenics sterilization facility in Willowbrook, that Lake County officials have been seeking.
In the 10-page letter, Mooney wrote that the EPA does not have enough information to conduct a full risk assessment. The response isn't meant to take the place of a more complete review being conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, he said.
"We still really need that report from ATSDR," Hart said.
"It's nice to have one big recap, if you will," she said of Mooney's letter. "It's been difficult for the public and elected officials to try to put together all these pieces."
The report will be the basis for the Illinois Department of Public Health to conduct a cancer incidence study to provide a retrospective look over 20 years.
"This is a lot of good information, but we're waiting or the ATSDR and IDPH reports," said Emily Young, spokeswoman for the Lake County Health Department.
Ethylene oxide is a flammable, colorless gas used in a variety of products and to sterilize equipment and devices that can't be sterilized by steam.
The U.S. EPA classified ethylene oxide as a human carcinogen in December 2016, saying long-term exposure increases the risk of cancers of the white blood cells, including Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, myeloma and lymphocytic leukemia, as well as the risk of breast cancer in women.
In late 2018, the Lake County Health Department learned of concerns about the use of ethylene oxide at Medline and Vantage. The county, in cooperation with Waukegan, Gurnee and the Illinois EPA, conducted three rounds of monitoring, the most recent in April 2020.
While some community members are concerned, modeling results provide better evidence than monitoring, which is limited by sample size and uncertainties, Mooney wrote.
U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider, who founded a bipartisan ethylene oxide task force, said he appreciates the EPA's detailed response to Lake County's concerns and welcomes more "concerted engagement" after years of federal inaction.