EPA Official Blocked Attempts to Inform Communities of Cancer-Causing Gas

Published Oct 1, 2021

What happened: According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Inspector General, the agency delayed informing frontline communities of the health risks they face due to living near facilities that emit ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing gas. Specifically, EPA political officials delayed and blocked attempts to inform communities in Illinois of elevated ethylene oxide levels and ordered EPA staff to not conduct inspections of facilities that emitted ethylene oxide, unless invited by the state to do so.

Why it matters: The EPA failed to provide necessary health risk data and information to frontline communities, thereby endangering the health and safety of communities. Furthermore, by forbidding EPA staff from carrying out enforcement activities, political officials prevented science-based actions that could have helped reduce ethylene oxide levels in communities.

The Office of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Inspector General found that the agency delayed in providing impacted communities data and other scientific information on the risks they faced from living near a facility that produced elevated levels of ethylene oxide, a gas that is associated with several cancers. The EPA collected data in May 2018, as part of a follow up to its National Air Toxics Assessment program, and found that the Sterigenics facility – a large medical sterilization industry in Willowbrook, Illinois – was producing ethylene oxide at levels that increased the cancer risk of nearby residents. According to the Inspector General, the EPA “chose to delay informing the community” near Sterigenics.

While a public meeting was held for Willowbrook residents near the Sterigenics facility, none were held for residents of Lake County, which is near the Medline and the Vantage facilities, two other large medical sterilization facilities that emit ethylene oxide. As we’ve highlighted in a previous report (see box 1 on page 14), Lake County is a majority low-income Latinx community, and the EPA’s differing response to the communities may be an example of environmental injustice.

In June 2018, the then-EPA regional administrator of Region 5 (which includes Illinois and other Midwest states and tribes) was briefed on the monitoring results. The administrator was concerned and immediately wanted to release the results to the public “to avoid another public health emergency like the Flint, Michigan drinking water crisis.” EPA staff were directed to prepare a public webpage to post the monitoring results and develop a press release. However, about an hour after posting, the then-deputy assistant administrator for Air and Radiation, Bill Wehrum, directed the EPA staff to take down the webpage. When the website was reposted in October 2018, it failed to include certain science-based information that was present in the website’s original version. Bill Wehrum was previously a lobbyist for chemical and oil companies and, during his time at the EPA, was under several investigations for ethics violations from the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the EPA’s inspector general. Additionally, a senior political appointee from the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation instructed EPA staff to not conduct inspections at ethylene oxide facilities unless invited by the state.

As stated by the Inspector General, the EPA’s mission statement states that the agency works to ensure that “[a]ll parts of society—communities, individuals, businesses, and state, local and tribal governments—have access to accurate information sufficient to effectively participate in managing human health and environmental risks.” The EPA’s failure to inform communities of their health risks from elevated ethylene oxide emissions and the failure to follow up on this data and conduct enforcement activities went against the agency’s mission statement and endangered the health and safety of Illinois residents.