After a crucial division of the Environmental Protection Agency reassessed the dangers of two key pollutants — ethylene oxide and chloroprene — the risk of cancer from air pollution shot up in many communities around the country. In 109 census tracts around the United States, the risk was suddenly unacceptable, according to the EPA’s own standards. Yet the agency didn’t take the next logical step: regulating these compounds or limiting emissions to protect residents from exposure. Instead, what happened next depended on where these hotspots were — and who was living there.
In Willowbrook, Illinois, an affluent suburb southwest of Chicago, residents were understandably horrified when they learned that they faced an elevated risk of cancer due to air pollution. According to the EPA’s most recent National Air Toxics Assessment, released in August, the residents of seven census tracts in the Chicago suburb and the surrounding area in DuPage County have a risk of developing cancer from air pollution that’s greater than 100 per million people, compared with the national average of 32 per million. The primary culprit was a chemical called ethylene oxide, a colorless gas emanating from a local plant owned by a company called Sterigenics. The chemical has been shown to cause reproductive problems, respiratory tract irritation, headaches, memory loss, and certain cancers, including leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and breast cancer.
When Gabriela Tejeda-Rios saw the list of health problems, a sickening wave of recognition washed over her. “It was like reading our medical history,” said Tejeda-Rios, an immigration lawyer who lives with her husband, two children, and mother just a half block from the plant. Since she moved to the house in 2009, Tejeda-Rios has suffered from intense headaches, dizziness, nausea, inability to concentrate, and memory loss. She has found it difficult to read through briefs, and almost instantly forgets movie plots and even some conversations. Both of her children, who have lived in the house for most of their lives, have had respiratory problems since they were little. Her 12-year-old daughter has often coughed to the point of vomiting and has developed a bone cyst. And one of her 9-year-old daughter’s classmates at the local elementary school was recently diagnosed with leukemia, as was Tejeda-Rios’s next-door neighbor, an otherwise healthy man in his early 50s.
The many doctors her family has seen over the past few years had been unable to explain their litany of health complaints. “It was always the same — ‘it’s a fluke, we don’t know why this is going on,’” said Tejeda-Rios. Knowing that there was an explanation for their suffering, that a chemical floating in their air has been wreaking havoc on each of their bodies, brought a strange form of validation along with anger — and shock.
Tejeda-Rios is not the only one experiencing disbelief about Willowbrook’s toxic burden. With 10 public parks, well-ranked public schools, and a “superior way of life,” according to its website, this leafy suburb doesn’t seem like a place where you’d find serious air pollution. In August, when a neighbor texted Neringa Zymancius, another area resident, about the ethylene oxide, “I literally wrote back, ‘Are you crazy?’ Because if we were being forcefully poisoned, there’d be a bigger hoopla about it,” said Zymancius. “There are reporters and doctors who live here, celebrities who live in the area.”
When they were moving from Chicago five years ago, Zymancius and her husband chose the neighboring town of Darien in large part because it seemed like a place where her children would be safe. “You look for sexual predators, good schools, taxes,” she said. “You don’t think you would have to look at air and water. You feel like it’s the one thing in our country we wouldn’t have to think about. We have the EPA, we have people who work hard to protect us.”
Zymancius’s friend turned out to be right about the pollution, as she and Tejeda-Rios learned when they attended a community-wide meeting in late August. The Sterigenics plant, which uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, and food, had been emitting dangerous levels of the chemical for 34 years.
It was only because a division of the EPA known as the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS, had assessed ethylene oxide in 2016 that they learned of the danger. The evaluation had changed the chemical’s status from a probable human carcinogen to plainly “carcinogenic to humans” and calculated a new risk threshold for ethylene oxide that was 30 times lower than the previous level. Two years later, the EPA used that new safety standard when calculating the values for its latest National Air Toxics Assessment (released in August 2018 but based on 2014 data), which gauges the health risks posed by air pollution in every census tract in the country.
Although the amount of ethylene oxide released into the air remained roughly the same — and, near the Sterigenics plant, had actually decreased slightly in recent years — because of the new IRIS level, the official reflection of the risk it posed suddenly shot up. When the new report came out on August 22, seven census tracts in DuPage County had cancer risk levels greater than what the EPA considers the “upper limit of acceptability”: 100 cancers per million people. In the most polluted tract in the county, the risk of cancer from air pollution was 282 per million.
Zymancius, Tejeda-Rios, and some of their neighbors immediately sprang into action. Within a few days of the public forum, they had formed a group called Stop Sterigenics. Less than six months later, that group has raised thousands of dollars, drawn more than 6,000 members to its Facebook page, held a lobby day to educate local legislators about the issue, and committed to doing whatever else it takes to rid the Willowbrook neighborhood of its chemical menace.
Photos: Alyssa Schukar for The Intercept
“They poked the wrong bear,” is how Lauren Kaeseberg, an attorney and member of a core team that runs Stop Sterigenics, described the company’s decision to pollute her community. Since learning about the contamination, Kaeseberg has spent most of her waking hours while not at her job at the Illinois Innocence Project working to stop the emissions — poring over the plant’s contracts and permits, marshaling her personal and professional contacts, and reaching out to politicians.
The prosperous and well-educated community near the Sterigenics facility in Willowbrook is particularly well-positioned to fight the contamination. Per capita income in the most affected census tract here is more than twice the national average. The many lawyers in the area have helped connect residents with seven law firms that are now exploring litigation against Sterigenics. The village of Willowbrook has been able to pay for its own independent testing for the chemical. And the local reporters whom Zymancius counted among her neighbors have helped ensure that the crisis has been well-covered in the Chicago Tribune.
Yet it was not clear whether even the extraordinary efforts of this powerful community would be enough to remove the carcinogens from Willowbrook’s air. Even when government scientists quantify a clear health risk from a chemical, the people there have learned, there is no straightforward path to turning that number into enforceable regulation.
The risk levels set by IRIS are meant to guide lawmakers, who can use them to put legally binding limits on the chemicals — or to shutter factories that emit them. The EPA also uses the numbers along with emissions data reported by companies to estimate the local cancer risks in the National Air Toxics Assessment. But the values set by IRIS are not themselves binding, which left the people of Willowbrook in a strange situation: The government has precisely quantified the threat they face and yet offered no obvious way to address it.
And there’s another issue in play here: race. Most of the census tracts across the country with dangerous levels of air pollution have lower percentages of white residents than the rest of the country, according to an analysis of national air pollution data by The Intercept. The U.S. population is 72 percent white; on average, however, the census tracts with elevated risk of cancer from air pollution are 57 percent white. In Willowbrook, by contrast, they are 77 percent white.
No one should be poisoned by toxic air pollution, regardless of the color of their skin. But the national attention to the Willowbrook crisis has exposed a stark racial divide when it comes to federal, state, and local responses to toxic air pollution. And in all of these places, residents who want to rid their air of toxic pollutants are coming up against a powerful enemy: the companies that make these chemicals, which are waging their own far better funded campaign to keep their carcinogenic products from being regulated.
Many residents of Willowbrook have criticized the EPA for its handling of their ethylene oxide crisis. Zymancius said she was “disgusted” with the agency, which declined to close the Sterigenics plant, despite its own findings.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin also called out the agency for not moving more quickly. “The EPA failed residents of DuPage County” and Lake County, another area of Illinois that has elevated levels of ethylene oxide “when it didn’t notify them in a timely manner of dangerously high levels,” Durbin said in November.
Outrage over the plant was fanned by a CBS report from early February that found the EPA and state authorities had known that Sterigenics was emitting ethylene oxide at levels that exceeded even the older safety thresholds. Despite these revelations, which Sterigenics disputed, the plant continued to operate — and to emit ethylene oxide in unsafe amounts. Monitoring results released by the EPA in early February measured the chemical in the air near Willowbrook Village Hall at 3,600 times the safety level set in the IRIS report.
Yet the federal agency has defended its response as swift. “EPA has been fully engaged in Willowbrook, working with elected officials, community leaders, local press and the facility to address and assess the ethylene oxide (EtO) issue,” an agency spokesperson said in a statement to The Intercept.
The EPA did begin addressing Willowbrook’s ethylene oxide problem well before the public was aware of it. In February 2018, six months before the national air toxics report was released, EPA staff began meeting with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the Centers for Disease Control, to discuss the risks ethylene oxide presented in Willowbrook. In May, the EPA began sampling the air near the Sterigenics plant. In June, staff from headquarters began providing technical support to its regional office and reviewing a permit application to install pollution controls in the plant. And by July, that equipment was successfully installed. Soon thereafter, the federal agency oversaw stack tests to make sure the equipment was functioning properly.
In August, the day before the national air toxics report was released to the public, the ATSDR published an evaluation of the potential health impacts of ethylene oxide from the plant in Willowbrook, which the EPA had requested. The report recommended “that Sterigenics take immediate action to reduce EtO emissions at this facility.”
Local officials were notified about the pollution the same day the national air toxic report was published, and a wide range of government representatives attended the public meeting about the ethylene oxide the following week. In addition to staff from EPA headquarters and its regional office, representatives of the ATSDR, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and the DuPage County Health Department were on hand to address locals’ concerns, as were two members of Congress representing the area, a state senator, Willowbrook’s mayor, and the village’s trustees.
But residents were outraged by the emissions and angry they hadn’t been informed about the pollution as soon as the agency’s staff had learned of it, and the EPA’s attention didn’t quell the uproar. The agency dispatched its top officials to deal with the crisis. In November, acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler met with Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth and two of the state’s congressional representatives to discuss Willowbrook’s ethylene oxide problem. That month, the chief of the EPA’s office of Air and Radiation, Bill Wehrum, went to Willowbrook to answer residents’ questions and assure them that the agency was considering more stringent limits on ethylene oxide. Wehrum also wrote to Durbin, Duckworth, then-Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, as well as three of the state’s congressional representatives to assure them that “the Agency shares your concerns and is taking actions to provide certainty to the residents of Willowbrook.”
Sterigenics responded to questions about this story with a statement that took issue with the IRIS assessment of ethylene oxide, describing it as “widely questioned and criticized by scientists and other experts and remains disputed, even within the U.S. EPA.”
While the EPA was tending to the furor in Willowbrook, the agency was not paying particular attention to other communities facing dangerous threats from toxic airborne chemicals. St. John the Baptist, a small African-American community on the Mississippi River in Louisiana, may provide the best evidence that not all air pollution crises are treated equally.
St. John, a mostly black parish half an hour west of New Orleans, has an even bigger ethylene oxide problem than Willowbrook. In St. John, where ethylene oxide emanates from a factory run by Evonik Materials, a company that makes chemicals used in cosmetics, 12 census tracts face cancer risk from the carcinogenic gas that’s greater than 100 per million, compared with seven such tracts in DuPage County. The most highly affected area in St. John has a cancer risk from the gas of 317 per million, according to the national air toxics report. The highest cancer risk due to the pollutant in Illinois is 251 per million.
But ethylene oxide is just one of the toxic chemicals in the air in St. John. In the most heavily polluted census tract in this Louisiana parish, the air contains 45 industrial pollutants that cause cancer and other serious health problems. One of them is chloroprene, a chemical emitted by the country’s only neoprene factory, which sits just across a chain link fence from people’s homes.
Ninety percent of residents in that tract are African-American, with a per capita income of just over $17,000 a year — less than a fourth of the per capita income in the most polluted census tract in Willowbrook, which is $71,266.
Together this stew of chemicals gave the residents of this small neighborhood, where many of the streets are unpaved, a cancer risk from air pollution of 1,505 per million — the very highest in the U.S., according to the EPA’s most recent air toxics report. That’s more than five times the highest risk faced in Illinois, where the census tract with the highest cancer risk from industrial chemicals ranks 19th in risk of cancer from all air pollutants.
When I first visited this small neighborhood two years ago, many of the residents told me they felt they had borne an unusually high burden of disease for years. Lydia Gerard, whose husband had just been diagnosed with kidney cancer, was suffering from an autoimmune disorder that gave her rashes, welts, and stomach troubles. Trollious Harris had a rare autoimmune condition that took her mobility and caused her to stomach to stop working. And, at 54, Kellie Tabb had an irregular heartbeat and lung cancer, like several other nonsmokers in the neighborhood.
David Sanders, whose house looks out on the neoprene factory, suffered from seizures and breathing problems. Both Sanders’s parents had died of cancer, as did one of his sisters, his aunt, and his uncle. His first cousin Marcia, who lived next door, had recently developed sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that has been linked to air pollution. The condition caused Marcia to lose her sight before she died in her early 40s.
“We have all lost people,” Mary Hampton told me. Hampton lives less than a quarter mile from the neoprene factory, and just over 3 miles from the plant that emits ethylene oxide. Her daughter-in-law, son-in-law, and two sisters-in-law died of cancer in recent years.
Although in Willowbrook the EPA has worked alongside local and state officials to address the dangerous levels of ethylene oxide, the agency has done little or nothing in St. John, where people continue to breathe in the highest levels of carcinogens in the country.
“Nothing has really changed,” Hampton told me recently.
Asked for comment on this story, a communications manager for Evonik Corporation referred The Intercept to a September press release from the American Chemistry Council, an industry group to which the company belongs. The statement explained the group’s belief that the risk value set by IRIS was too low and “significantly flawed.” The press release included a link to the ACC’s request to the EPA for a correction of the IRIS assessment.
Even for the 59 communities (see table above) that have officially dangerous levels of the very same pollutant — ethylene oxide — Willowbrook’s treatment is unusual. The EPA has paid far less attention to the eight less affluent, less white communities in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas, Puerto Rico, and West Virginia where the risk of cancer from ethylene oxide is even greater. The average median income in these eight polluted areas is roughly $50,000, compared with $92,000 in Willowbrook. While the EPA created a webpage to address residents’ concerns about ethylene oxide in Willowbrook and another to address pollution in Lake County, Illinois, which ranks 42nd in the nation in terms of cancer risk from ethylene oxide, the agency didn’t make webpages about the ethylene oxide problem in any of these other places.
Nor did it send high-ranking agency officials — or, in most cases, any officials at all — to address local concerns in public meetings. In many of the places with the highest risk of cancer from air pollution, residents are not even aware they’re being exposed to the carcinogen.
St. Charles, Louisiana, a half-hour from St. John, hasn’t received its own webpage or a visit from EPA staff, even though ethylene oxide from a plant owned by Dow’s Union Carbide presents the highest risk of cancer from the chemical in the country. In St. Charles, the cancer risk from ethylene oxide is 710 per million people, according to the EPA’s air toxics report, almost three times the risk faced in the areas of Illinois most polluted by ethylene oxide.
While the EPA played a key role in getting air monitoring around the Sterigenics plant and helping the company install pollution control equipment, the people in these eight other communities got no help from the EPA in ensuring that the facilities responsible for the pollution would reduce their emissions.
“No one has required anyone to even consider putting on control technologies here,” said Wilma Subra, an environmental consultant who has been keeping some Louisiana residents abreast of the developments around ethylene oxide. “In Illinois, EPA had ATSDR look at the risk and do air monitoring. But here in Louisiana, where we have the highest risk for ethylene oxide, they didn’t do any of that.”
The EPA did not respond to questions about the discrepancies between the agency’s responses to air pollution problems in various parts of the country.
The people of St. John also learned about their air pollution problem because of IRIS. In their case, the revelation stemmed from a 2010 assessment that deemed chloroprene to be much more dangerous than previously thought. The assessment found that the gas that had been released into their community since 1969 increased rates of leukemia, lung cancer, kidney cancer, and liver cancer.
The safety threshold calculated in the 2010 IRIS evaluation made it clear that the plant, then owned by DuPont, was emitting chloroprene at dangerous levels — and had been for decades. (DuPont sold the plant to a Japanese company called Denka in 2015.) But no one from the agency mentioned the dangerous new levels of the carcinogen to people living near the factory when the assessment was published. Nor did anyone alert residents to their risk — which was the highest in the country — right after the National Air Toxics Assessment came out in December 2015.
In a written response to questions for this article, a spokesperson from Denka criticized the safety level for chloroprene calculated by IRIS as “based on incomplete and flawed data” and disputed the characterization of its emissions as dangerous: “Scientific research shows Denka Performance Elastomer’s operations do not pose any additional health risks to the surrounding community.”
Denka’s spokesperson also cited research to back up that claim, noting in particular that “a published peer-reviewed study that tracked more than 15,000 workers in Neoprene plants across the world, including 1,400 from the [St. John] LaPlace facility, found no increased incidence of cancer deaths among them since the 1940s.” That study was paid for by the International Institute of Synthetic Rubber Producers, an industry group that includes DuPont as a member. Independent studies have shown that exposure to the chloroprene increased the risk of leukemia, kidney cancer, liver cancer, colon cancer, and liver cancer.
Unlike in Willowbrook, where the EPA apprised local officials of the risk the very same day the NATA report was published and within a week was presenting residents with information about the risks they faced, in the most affected census tract in St. John, people didn’t learn about their risk from chloroprene until eight months after the 2015 national report was published.
In St. John, there were no visits from high-ranking federal officials eager to answer residents’ questions. Nor did the ATSDR write or present the people of St. John with a report explaining the dangers they faced from the plant near their homes, or how to mitigate them.
The director of the EPA’s Office of Research and Development wrote to the agency’s regional office about the problem in May 2016, five months after the publication of the NATA report. But residents of St. John only learned about the problem in July, after a small handful of locals attended a meeting with a representative of the EPA’s regional office and parish leaders. The meeting wasn’t publicized, according to Robert Taylor, who was present. Only three to five community members attended, Taylor said, and those who wanted to ask questions had to submit them in writing. The EPA did set up a webpage with information about chloroprene in St. John.
As in Willowbrook, people in St. John were terrified and angry to learn about the dangers of the chemical they had been breathing for decades. Both communities were extremely worried about their children, who are particularly vulnerable to air pollution. And, as in Willowbrook, the Louisiana community very quickly formed a residents’ group, Concerned Citizens of St. John, to protect themselves from the pollution.
But the community groups have met with very different responses. In Illinois, outrage over ethylene oxide has relatively quickly led to action. In August, days after the news about Sterigenics broke, state lawmakers introduced legislation that would make it impossible for facilities to release ethylene oxide above the safety threshold set by IRIS. By November, another state bill had been filed that would make the use of ethylene oxide illegal by 2021.
In Washington, D.C., Sens. Duckworth and Durbin have led the charge against the chemical. In November, the senators, along with congressional representatives from Illinois, introduced two bills addressing the pollution crisis. One would require the EPA to change emission standards for the chemical and notify the public within 30 days if that standard is violated. The other, the Ethylene Oxide Is Toxic Act, would institute several protections, including a requirement that the EPA notify Congress, state and local public health departments, and affected communities when air pollution reaches a dangerous level.
And just over a week ago, less than six months after they first learned of the pollution, Willowbrook residents finally triumphed over their local polluter and brought an end to the release of the carcinogenic gas. A February 15 order from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency suspended operations at the Sterigenics facility, halting the use of ethylene oxide “until measures are in place to prevent emissions of ethylene oxide that contribute to ambient levels of ethylene oxide which present a public health hazard to residents and off-site workers in the Willowbrook community.” The order, which was issued with the approval of Gov. J. B. Pritzker, used a little-known provision of Illinois law that gives the state the authority to “seal” facilities that create an immediate danger to public health.
Sterigenics called the closure “indefensible” in a statement that went on to claim that the action was endangering health. “Unilaterally preventing a business that is operating in compliance with all state permits and regulations from carrying out its vital function sets a dangerous precedent. The Illinois EPA’s decision will place the health and lives of thousands of patients who rely on the critical medical products sterilized at Willowbrook at risk.” On February 18, Sterigenics sued the IEPA, arguing that the state was wrong to close the plant because it was operating according to its permits. (On February 20, a judge refused to lift the shutdown order.)
The news of the closure reached the members of Stop Sterigenics in the early evening. By the time they met in front of the plant to celebrate, it was already dark and only 19 degrees. After marveling over the police order taped to the factory door, Kaeseberg cranked “Hit the Road, Jack” on her phone, and she and her fellow activists danced in the freezing night. Afterward, dozens of residents and local lawmakers from both sides of the aisle gathered to toast their victory.
While lawmakers and residents were celebrating in Willowbrook, Louisiana lawmakers have yet to introduce either federal or state legislation addressing the air pollution crisis or address it publicly at all. And instead of sparking legislative action, the squeaky wheels of St. John have met with indifference and sometimes hostility from their government representatives.
Only one member of the group’s congressional delegation has responded to Concerned Citizens of St. John. “We sought help from our U.S. congressman, who sent a representative to one of our meetings,” said Robert Taylor, one of the group’s founders. “He sat in the meeting, said nothing, and got up and left. We never heard from him again,” Taylor added. “And we’ve never heard anything from either of our senators.”
Taylor’s group did get a visit from New Jersey senator and presidential hopeful Cory Booker, who stopped by St. John as part of a tour of some of the most polluted parts of Louisiana. Rather than treating his visit as a call to arms, one of the local papers, The Advocate, ran an editorial chastising Booker for criticizing the polluters without considering “the jobs and growth that the petrochemical corridor provides for the state.”
When one elected official — a local school board member named Patrick Sanders — attended the group’s meeting in January, Taylor publicly heralded him just for showing up. “It takes courage on the part of any politician to come and speak to us,” Taylor told Sanders as he sat among a few dozen of his neighbors gathered in a local church.
When I first visited Taylor in 2017, he had just begun trying to call attention to local air pollution after his wife and daughter became gravely ill. While we spoke, his wife, Zenobia, who has multiple sclerosis and breathing difficulties, lay motionless on the family’s couch. His 48-year-old daughter, Raven, who has an extremely rare autoimmune condition, was bed-bound. Unable to digest food, Raven had recently been forced to abandon her nursing career. She had already had her uterus removed and a gastric pacemaker installed.
“It’s too much,” Taylor had said, by way of explaining how he, a 78-year-old musician who had spent his decades observing the problems around him, became someone who arranged community meetings, made posters, and stood in the streets carrying them.
In a state where chemical companies account for a significant portion of the economy, Taylor knew the group would be treading on sensitive ground. Lest they be branded as anti-business, he and other members have been careful to avoid asking for the Denka plant to be shuttered. Instead, the activists have requested only that the company bring its emissions down to 0.2 micrograms of chloroprene per cubic meter of air, the maximum level the IRIS report deemed safe.
“We just want to stop being poisoned,” Taylor said.
Over the past few years, as the group’s cries for help have become increasingly desperate, Taylor has become even more outspoken about why he thinks their concerns have gone unheeded — and why DuPont first located the factory in St. John. “They looked at this community and did like they normally do,” said Taylor. “If we find a place where it’s just going to be Negroes, we can set up business there, we can set up shop there, because nobody cares about them.”
Meanwhile, the toxic emissions in St. John continue. Although the local activists have held rallies, picketed in front of local schools wearing T-shirts emblazoned with 0.2 to remind passersby of the safety threshold for chloroprene, and worried aloud over the fate of their children at virtually every one of the bi-monthly meetings they’ve held over the past two years, they still haven’t managed to convince authorities to bring the carcinogens in their air down to a safe level.
Denka has said it is unable to lower its chloroprene emissions to EPA’s safety limit. Instead, in 2017, the company installed pollution controls that it said would bring its emissions down by 85 percent. In a statement, the company said that it spent over $35 million on “several major emissions reduction projects,” and that, as a result, the company “will very nearly meet its 85 percent reduction estimate once calculations have been completed.”
There has been a slight reduction of chloroprene emissions since last summer, when the most recent report came out. But air monitoring from November showed that emissions still hit levels that are hundreds of times above what’s safe, according to the EPA’s 2010 assessment. In October, students at East St. John High School were exposed to more than 152 times the threshold set by the IRIS report — more than the highest levels recorded at that spot before the pollution control equipment was installed. And at the local elementary school, Fifth Ward Elementary, just two blocks from the factory, almost 500 young children are still being exposed to the carcinogen. The highest readings released in October were slightly down from the heights they reached in 2016, but they were still as much as 289 times the EPA’s limit. In December, the levels were lower but still reached more than 124 times the safety limit.
In Willowbrook, until last week’s order from the Illinois EPA, children were still being exposed to carcinogens, too. Four schools and a daycare center are within a mile of the Sterigenics plant. In mid-January, EPA monitoring measured ethylene oxide in air outside of the local middle school and high school at more than 200 times the safety limit in the IRIS report. A few days later, the levels had dropped at the schools, but were higher than ever at several other points in town. And independent testing done by a company hired by the village of Willowbrook found the chemical at dangerous levels at various spots inside several schools, including the library of Gower Middle School, where the ethylene oxide was measured at 163 times the safety threshold.
Photos: Alyssa Schukar for The Intercept
The emissions have been infuriating to Lauren Kaeseberg, who grew up in the Willowbrook area and moved back a few years ago. Kaeseberg attended high school less than half a mile from the plant during its peak year of emissions, 1998, when the Sterigenics facility sent more than 30,000 pounds of the chemical through its stacks. Kaeseberg believes those emissions are the reason that so many of the people she knows were struck by cancer, including classmates and her mother, who died in 2010 at age 59.
“Cancers have plagued our community. Growing up we thought that was normal,” said Kaeseberg. “I feel so angry that I sat there unknowingly breathing in that crap.” Having children of her own in a local school and daycare in the area moved Kaeseberg to no longer be a passive victim of Sterigenics. So in addition to working with Stop Sterigenics, she is now running for her local school board and, if she wins, plans to advocate for the board to monitor ethylene oxide levels in schools.
At best, even when the U.S. government takes action, regulating air pollution can take years. On the federal level, IRIS is supposed to play a critical role in keeping Americans safe. By law, the values calculated in its chemical assessments are meant to help set national standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants and for cleanups at Superfund sites as well as enforceable levels under the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clear Air Act. States can also use the assessments to set safety levels, which in turn are used in permits for facilities that emit these chemicals.
But decades can go by before published studies make their way into IRIS assessments. Twenty-five years elapsed between the most recent chloroprene assessment and the government’s previous report on the chemical. For ethylene oxide, the process took even longer.
Even more time can pass before states use those IRIS numbers to set regulations — if they ever do. Meanwhile, states set permits for industrial facilities based on outdated science. In the cases of both the Denka plant in St. John and the Sterigenics facility in Willowbrook, emissions that were well above the safety limits calculated by the EPA were nevertheless below the legal levels set by states in their permits.
And yet the biggest hurdle for polluted communities isn’t necessarily the slow-churning bureaucratic system that allows regulation to lag so far behind government science, leaving chemicals in a gray area of the law, but the companies that take advantage of that uncertainty. Chemical manufacturers have long bristled at regulation and employed scientists and lawyers to fend it off. IRIS, the only division of the EPA that independently assesses the toxicity of industrial chemicals, has been a favorite target of chemical companies for years.
Today the regulatory process is increasingly paralyzed by this corporate pushback, making it even harder for people contending with air pollution.
Three main chemicals are responsible for more than 90 percent of the cancer risk from air pollution in the 109 census tracts that have an officially elevated risk, according to an analysis by The Intercept: ethylene oxide, chloroprene, and formaldehyde, a chemical used in building materials, glue, and fabrics that has been linked to cancers. If these three pollutants were eliminated, only one census tract in the U.S. would have a cancer risk from air pollution above 100 per million. In both St. John and Willowbrook, the cancer risk for air pollution would be well under 20 per million.
Yet the EPA hasn’t moved to ban or put national restrictions in place for any of these pollutants. For each, the chemical industry has repeatedly attempted to cast doubt on the government science — interventions that have worked to slow or halt the process of regulating the chemicals in communities rich and poor.
In the case of the chloroprene assessment, Denka has employed a consultant named Kenneth Mundt to undermine science that has already undergone decades of scrutiny. For example the National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens described chloroprene as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” back in 2000, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified it as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” in 1999. Yet Mundt, who was originally hired by DuPont, claimed that the 2010 IRIS assessment of the chemical was flawed. In the past two years, Denka twice requested that IRIS increase its safety threshold and change its classification of chloroprene as a “probable” human carcinogen.
Denka and Mundt had help from the Republican-led House Science Committee, which invited Mundt to be the main witness at a 2017 hearing on IRIS. The Congressmen described the EPA’s work on the chemical as “overreach” and spoke of eliminating IRIS.
IRIS denied the company’s first request to change the risk value of chloroprene. Tina Bahadori, director of EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, which includes IRIS, told The Intercept in 2017 that the government scientists had turned down Denka’s request for reconsideration. “It was our firm response that you can’t change the science just because you don’t like the answers,” said Bahadori.
But last year industry consultants submitted another request for the chloroprene assessment to be reconsidered. Denka gave the EPA even more information this month, according to an agency spokesperson. Though it may ultimately reject the company’s suggestions, IRIS is once again considering them.
The chemical industry is waging a similar campaign to exonerate ethylene oxide. In September, the American Chemistry Council requested that the EPA correct the assessment of that chemical, too, insisting it was “substantially flawed” and asking the agency to not just change the evaluation but also the values calculated in the National Air Toxics report. Dow, which operates the Union Carbide plant in St. Charles, the biggest emitter of ethylene oxide in the country, has also disputed the assessment. In its suit against IEPA, Sterigenics also disputed the “accuracy and validity” of the IRIS assessment of ethylene oxide.
And in late December, the EPA issued a highly unusual request for public comment on the use of the risk value IRIS calculated for ethylene oxide in an unrelated document. In a letter to acting EPA Administrator Wheeler, Duckworth said she was alarmed that hidden inside a 103-page document “was a troubling information request that appears to be a transparent invitation for the public — including chemical industries — to weaken EPA’s forthcoming rules intended to protect Illinoisans and Americans throughout the nation from elevated levels of cancer risk resulting from exposure to ethylene oxide.”
“I’ve never seen this before,” said Emma Cheuse, a staff attorney at Earthjustice who has been working on protections from ethylene oxide. “It’s shocking that EPA would attempt to question or ignore the most current scientific assessment.”
The EPA responded to an inquiry about the request for public comment with an emailed statement saying that the agency intends to evaluate and address facility-wide risks due to ethylene oxide in future rule-making.
Meanwhile, an IRIS assessment of formaldehyde has been near completion for years but has yet to be released. In 2015, that scientific report was being reviewed and prepared for public comment, according to an IRIS document from that year. But formaldehyde was absent from the division’s most recent agenda, published in December.
A recent Trump appointment may explain the disappearance. At the end of September, David Dunlap, the former director of policy and regulatory affairs for Koch Industries, was appointed to run the EPA’s Office of Research and Development, the division of the EPA that includes IRIS. Koch Industries owns Georgia-Pacific, which is a major producer and user of formaldehyde, and Koch has lobbied against designating the chemical as a carcinogen for years. And Dunlap had represented formaldehyde manufacturers on a panel of the American Chemistry Council that disputed the link between the chemical and leukemia.
On December 19, Dunlap voluntarily recused himself from work on the IRIS evaluation of the chemical — the very same day the EPA released the IRIS agenda that omitted formaldehyde. In his letter, Dunlap committed not to work on the formaldehyde assessment in the future but didn’t address any work he might have already done on it during the two months he had been at the agency.
When asked about the timing of the letter, an EPA spokesperson said in an email that assistant EPA administrators and their deputies set the priorities for IRIS assessments and did not identify formaldehyde as a top priority.
But a leaked copy of a Government Accountability Office report found that EPA leadership has been hindering IRIS’s work, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. Agency staff directed the heads of various EPA programs to limit the number of chemicals they wanted IRIS to study, and nine of 16 assessments — including the assessment of formaldehyde — were subsequently dropped, according to the story.
IRIS also has apparently delayed the release of a handbook laying out its independent process for developing and reviewing chemical assessments. Last year, the National Academy of Sciences had praised a draft of the document, which was expected to be published shortly thereafter.
While the draft formaldehyde assessment hasn’t been made public, a central issue for the chemical is its relationship to leukemia. In 2014, the National Toxicology Program identified the link with leukemia when classifying formaldehyde as a known carcinogen. But the American Chemistry Council has disputed that finding and insists that the chemical doesn’t cause cancer. While the lobbying group has held this position for years, the most recent evidence it cites comes from Kenneth Mundt, the same scientific consultant who has challenged the evidence of chloroprene’s harms.
Formaldehyde already accounts for more than half the nationwide cancer risk from air pollution around the country, according to the National Air Toxics Assessment. And that’s using a safety threshold set in 1989. If the updated formaldehyde assessment were to be released, it could very well drive that number significantly higher.
Yet that’s unlikely to happen soon. While formaldehyde is no longer on the IRIS agenda, the American Chemistry Council has been working to have the chemical considered under another division of the EPA, which is headed by one of its former executives, another Trump appointee named Nancy Beck. In her first 10 months at the agency, Beck had 19 calls or meetings related to IRIS, according to documents released in response to a FOIA request filed by the Environmental Defense Fund.
The EPA ultimately may not grant the industry requests to revise its assessments. But even if the agency rebuffs the industry, the requests have allowed chemical manufacturers to cast doubt on the safety standards. When I asked Chuck Carr Brown, the head of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, why his agency wasn’t requiring the Denka plant to lower its chloroprene emissions to the safety level IRIS had calculated, Brown told me that “there are folks that are challenging IRIS.”
The decisions and calculations made by government have become matters of life and death in the parts of the country struggling with the worst air pollution. In Willowbrook, that realization sparked a victorious campaign against their local polluter. “Zero was the only number we accepted,” Kaeseberg said after the plant was forced to shut its doors.
As they are in St. John, the residents of Willowbrook have been primarily concerned with protecting their own community from the immediate threat it faces. But in their six-month fight, they have come to realize that the battle over air pollution is bigger than the factory in their village. “Sterigenics is our monster, but they’re not the only one,” Kaeseberg told me. Within a few months of learning about their own toxic air, Stop Sterigenics members located two plants in Lake County, Illinois, that were also emitting ethylene oxide. And, even after Sterigenics was forced to stop operating, the group chose not to cancel a planned lobbying day at the state capitol. Instead, they met with legislators and argued that all facilities should be permanently banned from the release of ethylene oxide throughout the state.
“We added more people to meet with legislators,” said Kaeseberg, who is hoping Willowbrook’s victory will send a hopeful message to other activists in Illinois and throughout the country. “It shows that a group of people, if you’re loud enough and you are strategic enough and you’re relentless enough, you can take some of the power back from these corporations and lobbyists,” she said.
Yet in St. John, almost three years of being loud and relentless has yet to pay off. And while they’ve been waiting for authorities to respond to their outrage, many of the people at the center of that fight have become more focused on survival than strategy.
For Raven Taylor, the past few years have been particularly difficult. Taylor, who is still struggling with a rare autoimmune condition, has had seven surgeries since I first spoke with her in 2017. Her good friend Trollious Harris died almost a year ago. Harris was 49, just a few months younger than Taylor, and grew up around the corner.
“That was hard on me,” said Taylor. The two used to commiserate about the extremely uncommon stomach problem they both shared, gastroparesis. Although the disorder is very rare, Taylor has met a few others in St. John with the same condition. The only other people she’s ever encountered who had the disease live in a Kentucky community where another DuPont plant emitted chloroprene while making neoprene. That plant, in Rubbertown, Kentucky, closed in 2008, in part due to health concerns, making the St. John facility the only place in the country where neoprene is manufactured.
Taylor’s mother is doing somewhat better, but the family attributes her improvement to her departure from St. John for California, where she now lives with her son. Kellie Tabb, who is recovering from lung cancer, also decided to leave St. John. And though she still struggles for breath, having lost one of her lungs to surgery and radiation, she feels better. “I have over $30,000 in credit card debt from the move,” Tabb told me recently. “But it was worth it. I left to save my lungs. I chose to go in debt to fight for my life.”
The small neighborhood next to the plant has suffered other losses over the last two years. Lydia Gerard’s husband, Walter, died of cancer in June at age 64. A few months ago, Mary Hampton’s 57-year-old brother was diagnosed with cancer, making him the sixth member of her immediate family living in St. John and by her count the tenth person on her street to develop the disease in recent years.
“As urgent as it is and how long it took for it to be acknowledged, I thought it would be approached in a more emergency-like manner,” Sanders told me. He paused to catch his breath and consider how the rest of the country has treated the news that his neighborhood has the highest risk of cancer from air pollution. “It’s like it’s just — a story,” Sanders said.
Still, even after losing a sister, a brother, an aunt, an uncle, and both his parents to cancer, Sanders remains hopeful that the story might have a happy ending. “Not for me. I’m on my way out,” he said. But he is still trying to protect the home that his parents built before DuPont put the factory across from it — “back when folks were sharecropping.”
“It’s for my children and grandchildren,” said Sanders. “It’s the only inheritance I have for them.”