Hinsdale teen gets Barron Young Heroes prize for fight against carcinogen
Being embarrassed in public by a government representative is something that teenager Alexandra Collins likely will never forget.
The budding environmental activist from Hinsdale was at a community forum hosted in May of 2019 by the Environmental Protection Agency about carcinogenic ethylene oxide emissions produced by the now-closed Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook.
"I asked an EPA doctor what science students should be looking for when they are exposed to ethylene oxide. Essentially, how it impacts our health," Alexandra, now 17, recalled. "And the EPA doctor responded that students shouldn't smoke in order to not get cancer."
The dismissive answer stunned Alexandra, who already had done extensive research and co-founded a youth group, Students Against Ethylene Oxide (SAEtO), dedicated to protecting people from ethylene oxide emissions.
"I was angry. And after that meeting, I let that embarrassment kind of get to me. It made me feel bad."
But then it became a turning point, she said.
"I decided I shouldn't let embarrassment stop me from taking action," she said. "That fueled me to start the letter-writing campaign (to elected officials), and that's also when we started to grow to different schools. That helped harness the youth energy to help fight ethylene oxide."
Alexandra said she found out about Sterigenics and its ethylene oxide emissions from a newspaper article in 2018.
"The cancer rates in the community were around nine times the national average," she said.
She also learned from her biology teacher at Hinsdale Central High School that exposure to carcinogens is even more harmful for young people whose bodies are still developing.
All that prompted her to want to take action, she said.
Following investigative media reports and the push from activists like Alexandra, the Illinois EPA ordered the Sterigenics plant shuttered in February of 2019. A consent order allowed the company to reopen if it met certain standards, but then the company announced a permanent closure in September that same year.
Last month, Alexandra was among 25 winners of the 2021 Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, which honors outstanding young leaders who've made a significant positive impact. The top 15 winners, including Alexandra, each get $10,000, which she plans to use for college and to fund the efforts of SAEtO, which has 501(c) (3) federal nonprofit status.
Since then, SAEtO's fight has morphed to banning ethylene oxide emissions nationwide, especially near schools and residential areas.
The group continues to stage protests and engage in letter-writing campaigns. It also started teaming up with environmental groups, like Earthjustice and Sierra Club, and has branched into consumer advocacy.
It has created the website ETO-Free, which highlights beauty and skin care products made by companies that don't use ethylene oxide in their sterilization process.
"As teens who get acne, sometimes, and have other skin issues, we really do consume beauty products, especially skin care products," Alexandra said. "It's about using the power of the dollar."
The website, launched in spring of 2020, highlights 14 products. It takes a long time to investigate each one, Alexandra explained.
"We have taken a really careful look at specific companies. We have been in contact with different employees of the companies, we have been working with the founders and CEOs," she said. "Our director of research, she spends a ton of time looking into each of the products we review, looking into the scientific studies about the other ingredients to make sure they are beneficial to the skin."
"We understand that we, as teenagers, we are not experts," she added. "It's our goal to get the best information about that brand and really trying to promote the best business practices."
The goal is to expand the website to other products and industries, Alexandra said. "It's a way we can all approach this issue, from the consumer level."
Despite the obstacles, Alexandra said she "definitely" is optimistic about long-term success of the fight to ban ethylene oxide emissions.
"I am really excited about working toward approaching this issue at all different levels, because it's such as big issue," she said.
"We know it's a long fight -- and it's a fight worth being a part of."