UIC report finds elevated levels of ethylene oxide in Lake County residents

  • Medline Industries has been under fire from Lake County residents who accuse its plants of polluting the air and causing cancer.

    Medline Industries has been under fire from Lake County residents who accuse its plants of polluting the air and causing cancer. Daily Herald File Photo

Updated 12/12/2019 6:41 PM

A University of Illinois at Chicago report found elevated levels of the toxic chemical ethylene oxide among Waukegan residents living near a Medline Industries plant.

"Ethylene oxide levels are more than 1.5 times higher among residents living closest to one of two facilities that emit ethylene oxide in Lake County," researchers said.


The news comes amid heightened concerns about releases of the toxin in the suburbs and efforts by lawmakers to restrict emissions.

"There is no safe level of exposure to ethylene oxide, and this pilot project suggests that facilities that emit the chemical put nearby communities at risk," said Susan Buchanan, UIC School of Public Health environmental and occupational health professor.

She cautioned the results "should be interpreted as pilot surveillance data only and a research protocol should be developed to confirm these results."

Medline spokesman Jesse Greenberg responded Thursday that "since the raw data, methodology or official summary from the UIC researchers has not been released, we are left with a lot of questions about what conclusions, if any, can be drawn from this limited sampling."

He said ethylene oxide levels found in residents were within a normal range, according to other studies.

Medline and Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee were hit with lawsuits this year from Lake County residents who accuse the companies of polluting the air and causing cancer. Both companies use ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment.

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"We have always operated in compliance with all laws and regulations (and) have always operated at or below our permitted levels," Medline officials said in August.

UIC scientists tested 93 residents living near the plants.

Medline and Vantage officials have previously said they are installing new controls that will capture 99.9% of ethylene oxide used at the factories.

Residents tested "had a mean level of ethylene oxide hemoglobin adducts that was significantly higher than the mean of the rest of the participants," Buchanan said. "These figures should be seen as a powerful call to action for community members and policymakers to hold companies accountable."

Medline's Greenberg countered that "recent ambient air tests released by the Lake County Health Department show ethylene oxide levels at sites closest to Medline in Waukegan are below background levels the EPA measured in 34 different cities."


But UIC researchers found that the mean average blood levels of ethylene oxide for people living approximately a half mile from the Medline plant were 50.1 pmol/gmHb, referring to molecules per gram of hemoglobin.

"For participants who lived farther away, the mean ethylene oxide hemoglobin adduct level was 29.8 pmol/gmHb," they stated, noting estimated average ethylene oxide levels are around 26 pmol/gmHb.

Another company that uses ethylene oxide, Sterigenics Co., closed its Willowbrook plant in October amid pressure from the state and homeowners over air pollution and cancer cases.

Officials with Sterigenics Co. blamed their exit on an "unstable legislative and regulatory landscape in Illinois" that has "created an environment in which it is not prudent to maintain these critical sterilization operations."

• Daily Herald reporter Russell Lissau contributed to this report.

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