Medline and Sterigenics haven’t reported cancer-causing ethylene oxide emissions to the EPA’s pollution inventory for years

Nearly every major industrial source of ethylene oxide makes it relatively easy for Americans to know how much of the cancer-causing gas drifts into surrounding communities.

The only outliers are two Illinois-based companies that for years have failed to report emissions to the Toxics Release Inventory, a Tribune review of federal records found.

A Medline Industries plant in north suburban Waukegan last appeared in the inventory during the mid-2000s, even though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency later determined the facility has been responsible for some of the nation’s highest cancer risks from air pollution.

Oak Brook-based Sterigenics stopped filing annual reports with the EPA in 2018, the same year neighbors and political leaders fought to shut down one of the company’s sterilization plants in west suburban Willowbrook.

Sterigenics closed the Willowbrook plant in 2019. It still uses ethylene oxide to fumigate medical equipment in eight other cities, including suburbs of Atlanta and Los Angeles. But the past four years of emissions are absent from the EPA’s inventory — omissions the agency refused to address during the Trump administration.

Annual pollution disclosures are the least that should be required from corporations, environmental activists said, especially when it comes to chemicals that thousands of Americans breathe every day.

“Transparency is key,” said Celeste Flores, a Gurnee resident who grew up in the area and now lives a mile from Medline’s assembly plant at Skokie Highway and Pulaski Drive in Waukegan.

“They might be a top employer in our community, but their commitment needs to include our health in addition to jobs,” said Flores, co-chair of Clean Power Lake County, a local environmental group.

The need for more information from chemical manufacturers and users became a global priority in 1984 when a Union Carbide plant released a burst of methyl isocyanate, an extremely toxic gas that killed at least 3,800 and, by some accounts, as many as 16,000 people in Bhopal, India.

After the same chemical leaked from another Union Carbide plant in West Virginia, Congress responded with the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, a law that required scores of companies to begin filing annual reports about pollution released into air, water and soil.

By making the information readily available to the public, the EPA says on its website, the pollution inventory “creates a strong incentive for companies to improve environmental performance.” The agency posts the data online, and with a few clicks anyone can discover information about specific industries, facilities and about 650 different chemicals.

Medline and Sterigenics began facing scrutiny after the EPA updated its national map of cancer risks from certain airborne chemicals.

The new map, released in August 2018, reflected a scientific consensus that ethylene oxide is far more dangerous than previously thought. As a result, the EPA determined, more than half a million Americans face unacceptable cancer risks, mostly from breathing the toxic gas, also known as EtO.

Exposure to even small concentrations dramatically increases the chances of being diagnosed with breast cancer, leukemia and lymphomas during a person’s life, the EPA and two panels of independent scientists concluded.

Though its competitors disclose EtO releases through the EPA’s pollution inventory, Sterigenics said it isn’t required to do so. “The company reports emissions to relevant state authorities in accordance with the requirements under its permits,” the company said in a two-sentence response to questions.

Medline also said it reports emissions to state authorities. In Illinois at least, public access to the obscure filings requires a Freedom of Information Act request.

President Joe Biden’s administration is pledging to make it clear all EtO users should file annual Toxics Release Inventory reports.

“Every person in the United States has a right to know about what chemicals are released into their communities,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said last month in a statement announcing several improvements to the pollution inventory, including reporting requirements for natural gas processors and companies that make or use chemicals targeted by the agency for more stringent regulation.

In its own statement, Medline said company officials support the EPA’s changes. “Medline always will follow all federal and state rules and regulations and continue to operate safely and within our legal responsibilities,” the company said.

Michael Ash, an economist and public policy analyst at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said there are several limitations to the information provided by the EPA.

Emissions are self-reported estimates from companies, several of which have successfully petitioned the EPA over the years to recalculate what they release into air, water or soil after journalists or environmental groups drew attention to the pollution.

The inventory doesn’t include emissions from cars, trucks and other mobile sources. Nor does it provide any detail about the toxicity of specific chemicals or concentrations released daily and hourly into the environment.

“It’s useful to know where to focus attention,” said Ash, who along with other researchers merges data from the EPA’s inventory with other indicators for an annual Toxic 100 index of corporate polluters. (The 2020 list ranks Medline 98th out of 100, even without emissions from its Waukegan plant included in the analysis.)

“Yet the reporting doesn’t guarantee a clean environment,” Ash said. “It’s up to you as a citizen or shareholder or activist to do something about it.”

Industrial facilities emitting ethylene oxide continue to legally operate under federal regulations that haven’t been updated to reflect the risk it poses.

A revised state permit required Medline to reduce emissions from its Waukegan plant to 150 pounds a year, down from 3,058 pounds reported by the company in 2014. But community activists contend the permit doesn’t protect neighbors from harm.

“More testing and better oversight of these facilities is sorely needed in Illinois,” the group Stop EtO in Lake County said in a statement.

To date the only source of ethylene oxide scrutinized by the U.S. EPA is the now-defunct Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook.

Based on samples collected from air monitoring equipment at parks, schools and homes near the facility, the EPA concluded its pollution could trigger more than 10 cases of cancer for every 10,000 people exposed during their lifetimes — a rate 10 times higher than what the agency considers acceptable.

State and local officials found elevated levels of EtO using similar devices in neighborhoods surrounding Medline’s Waukegan plant, near a Viant Medical facility in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and close to a Sterigenics plant in Smyrna, Georgia.

The Grand Rapids facility later stopped using ethylene oxide. Regulators in Georgia are locked in a long-running legal battle with Sterigenics about emissions from its plant near the Atlanta city limits.

“I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit around and do nothing about this,” said Tony Adams, who lives less than a mile from the Smyrna plant and helped organize a group called Stop Sterigenics - Georgia after reading about the company’s pollution. “But to get something done you really need the EPA involved.”

Sterigenics also is under fire from New Mexico’s attorney general, who filed a lawsuit in January accusing the company of “intentional or negligent” releases of ethylene oxide from a sterilization plant in the southeast corner of the state, just across the border from El Paso, Texas.

Last month, the EPA’s inspector general reported that industry-connected political appointees in the Trump administration blocked the agency from investigating ethylene oxide polluters and prevented career staff from warning Americans about the hazards.

Another report from the inspector general, released a year ago, condemned Trump appointees for failing to schedule public meetings about ethylene oxide in 16 of the 25 communities across the nation where the lifetime risk of developing cancer exceeds agency guidelines, including two in Lake County.