Wendy Abrams has used her wealth to help protect the environment and public health. She’s the founder of a public art exhibit meant to raise awareness on climate change, serves on the board of the Waterkeeper Alliance, and has been on the boards of the NRDC Action Fund and the Environmental Defense Fund’s National Council. She helped found the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago, which trains students to address environmental injustices. Abrams was a major donor to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Rahm Emanuel, and she has railed against the Keystone Pipeline and air-polluting coal plants.
Abrams’s wealth comes from Medline, a company her great-grandfather founded in 1910. Today Medline is the largest privately held manufacturer and supplier of medical supplies in the United States, with over $10 billion in sales in 2018. Abrams is a principal shareholder in Medline and formerly served as the company’s director of corporate communications; her brothers and husband are now, respectively, Medline’s CEO, president, and chief operating officer.
But now, in an uncomfortable turn of events, Abrams finds herself on the other side of an environmental crisis — affiliated with the polluter, rather than fighting on behalf of the polluted.
In 2016, a division of the Environmental Protection Agency found that the air pollutant ethylene oxide, or EtO, was more dangerous than previously thought. The clear gas was already known to cause tumors of the brain, lung, breast, uterus, and lymph system as well as neurological effects, respiratory effects, and numbness of the extremities. But the report changed EtO’s classification from probable human carcinogen to officially “carcinogenic to humans” and found that cancer risk from EtO exposure was 30 times worse than previous estimates.
Because the EPA has yet to set limits on the chemical that reflect this latest science, more than 100 census tracts around the country have elevated cancer risks due in part to ethylene oxide pollution. A 2018 EPA report, which was based on industrial facilities’ tally of their own emissions, clearly tied specific sites emitting the chemical to the cancer risk in each place. And in Waukegan, Illinois, a small city about halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee, the biggest source of ethylene oxide pollution is a Medline plant owned and operated by Wendy Abrams’s family.
Diana Burdette and her husband moved to Waukegan from Chicago in 2010. The former industrial hub on the shores of Lake Michigan offered affordable housing and proximity to the college and graduate schools they were attending. Even while both were in school, Burdette and her husband were able to rent a charming two-bedroom, brick duplex near a wooded area. Though they didn’t know it at the time, the home where they would live for nine years and have two children was being inundated with ethylene oxide from Medline, which was just one mile away, and from another factory three miles away run by a company called Vantage Specialty Chemicals.
Not long after moving to Waukegan, both Burdette and her husband began to develop respiratory problems. Burdette also began to have difficulty digesting food and lost 80 pounds. She also began to get a tingly numbness in her face and fingertips that would come and go but stayed during most of her winters there. Both her children, now three and five, also had breathing difficulties. When they got colds, the entire family relied on nebulizers. And her older son developed severe eczema.
“They kept saying it would clear up, but it never did,” said Burdette. “Until we moved.”
Shortly after the family moved to another home several miles further from the Medline plant last October, her son’s rash finally went away. Burdette’s digestion problems also disappeared, and the numbness in her face and fingertips went away, as did her entire family’s respiratory problems.
The next month, Burdette learned from an article in the Chicago Tribune that the Medline plant had been emitting dangerous amounts of ethylene oxide — the same air pollutant that was also plaguing a community about an hour south in Willowbrook, Illinois. In 2017, the Medline facility released 2,863 pounds of the chemical into the air and the Vantage Specialty Chemicals in nearby Gurnee plant released 2,160 pounds of the chemical, according to reports the companies filed with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Together, the emissions caused the census tract where Burdette and her family lived to have a cancer risk of 157 per million in 2014, according to the most recent EPA air toxics report. That’s about 5 times the national average.
Like the residents of Willowbrook, who formed a community group called Stop Sterigenics to fight the pollution emitted from the nearby Sterigenics plant, people living close to the Medline and Vantage plants, both of which are in Lake County, sprang into action. Burdette began working with Clean Power Lake County, an organization that was already focusing on some of Waukegan’s other serious environmental problems, including a local coal-fired power plant, a coal ash pond, several Superfund sites, and a number of chemical facilities (one of which was the site of a deadly explosion this past weekend). Other residents created a new group, Stop EtO Lake County.
But in Waukegan, where the census tract most affected by the chemical is only 25 percent white and has a per capita income of just over $14,000, the same dangerous chemical is still in the air. Although the EPA and the state have known about the ethylene oxide in Lake County and other hotspots around the country since at least August, Burdette and the others residents learned of its presence in their air from the newspaper six months after Willowbrook residents were briefed about it. No high-level officials came to Waukegan or Gurnee to address the local risk.
And while Sterigenics was stopped from releasing ethylene oxide in Willowbrook, the Medline plant in Waukegan and the Vantage facility in Gurnee continue to emit the chemical. So far, the EPA has not done any air monitoring for ethylene oxide near either plant. Meanwhile, the federal agency has continued collecting air samples in Willowbrook even after that plant closed in February.
Lake County’s health department recently announced that it will hire a company to begin monitoring for ethylene oxide near both plants in June. While they welcome the move, local environmental groups have pointed out that the decision leaves their already strapped local governments to shoulder an expense that the federal government has paid for elsewhere. The county and the Illinois Congressional delegation have also requested that the ATSDR do an assessment of the health risk presented by ethylene oxide in Lake County, as it did in Willowbrook.
Asked about the discrepancy in its treatment of the two cases of pollution, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency provided a written response that noted that since the release by U.S. EPA of the monitoring data for Willowbrook, “the Illinois EPA has been evaluating other sources of emissions including those in Lake County.” The statement also said that the state agency has been working with both the Medline and Vantage facilities on measures to reduce emissions and that, in the coming weeks, “Illinois EPA will invite the public to participate in a meeting to discuss these noted and other measures at the source. Vantage will also begin air monitoring in the Gurnee community this quarter. Also in the coming weeks, the Illinois EPA will invite the public to participate in a meeting to discuss a draft construction permit that will detail emissions reducing measures that Medline will undertake very soon.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also provided a written statement in response to questions for this story. While the federal environmental agency acknowledged that it was not conducting air monitoring in Lake County, it said that, along with the IEPA, it is “coordinating with the facilities in Lake County, Illinois, to achieve additional emission reductions. The Agencies are also using a variety of tools, such as air dispersion modeling, to better characterize potential risks near the Lake County facilities, as well as other facilities and areas that NATA, which is EPA’s screening tool, identified as potentially having elevated risks.” The U.S. EPA is also providing technical assistance to the Lake County Health Department on the monitoring it is planning to do, according to the statement.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Vantage said that the company has installed an additional scrubber to reduce emissions and is currently doing testing to verify that it’s functioning properly. Vantage then plans to conduct ambient air monitoring.
The lag in the federal and state response to their problem has left some Lake County residents feeling like second-class citizens. “We want what Willowbrook got,” Jolanta Pomiotlo, a Gurnee resident of 18 years and founding member of Stop EtO in Lake County, told me recently. “We’re being told by our government agencies that all of the resources are being dedicated to Sterigenics, and they can’t afford to pay for testing in Lake County. Apparently only wealthy communities are entitled to resources from the state.”
Members of Clean Power Lake County have also been calling attention to the racial inequity in the state. “They take care of the white communities,” said Burdette, a first generation Guatemalan American. “But what about our black and brown communities? What about us?”
For its part, Medline said that it is trying to limit how much ethylene oxide its Waukegan plant releases. A spokesperson referred The Intercept to a statement on the company’s website that said, “We are proactively working to install best-available abatement technology that will control all sources of emissions and will increase the efficiency of current controls to the highest level possible.” The company has also defended ethylene as lifesaving because it sterilizes equipment needed for surgeries and other medical procedures. Environmental advocates have argued that there are other ways to sterilize medical equipment that don’t cause cancer.
But the company is also questioning the EPA’s assessment of the dangers of ethylene oxide, which was conducted by a division of the agency known as IRIS. A FAQ on the Medline site notes, “The IRIS report has come under very heavy criticism from the scientific community.” It goes on to say, “The IRIS report has been formally challenged under the Information Quality Act (IQA), which requires federal agencies to employ sound science in making regulations and disseminating information and provides a mechanism to challenge government information believed to be inaccurate.”
What Medline doesn’t mention on its site is that the heavy criticism and challenges of the IRIS assessment of ethylene oxide have come from companies that use the chemical and stand to lose money if it is more strictly regulated — including Medline. In particular, the formal challenge to the ethylene oxide assessment was filed by the American Chemistry Council, a trade group to which Medline belongs.
The company’s site also describes the IRIS assessment as a “document with no legal binding effect,” a point on which Lake County residents fighting ethylene oxide agree. Although EPA scientists spent years poring over independent studies before coming to a conclusion about the dangers of ethylene oxide, their findings have not translated into federal, state, or local regulations that people here can use to stop the emissions. Both Medline’s Waukegan facility and the Vantage Specialty Chemicals plant have permits from the state allowing the release of levels of the chemical that the EPA has deemed unsafe.
“Even though it’s technically legal because it was in their permits, it’s immoral,” said Pomiotlo of Stop EtO in Lake County, which is working with elected officials to pass state legislation to ban the release of the ethylene oxide. The group has been advocating for air testing in Lake County and is one of several pushing back against an industry effort to undermine the IRIS assessment of ethylene oxide.
Clean Power Lake County is also fighting for legislation targeting ethylene oxide on the state level and working to ensure that community members have a say in any government action to address the chemical.
And the group is taking one additional step to try to rid their air of the toxic pollution by reaching out directly to the individual they think might best be able to stop it: Wendy Abrams.
Although Abrams did not respond to my questions or an interview request, members of the Clean Power Lake County are hoping she will agree to meet with them. If she does, Burdette could present her with an impassioned case. She could tell Abrams that she worries constantly about her children, who have spent their first years breathing in ethylene oxide. Abrams has brought up her own children when she argued against air pollution from coal-fired power plants, noting that “[i]n every instance, it is cheaper to prevent pollution than to clean it up.”
Or Burdette could talk about the evidence that her community is still being exposed to the pollution because it’s mostly people of color. Abrams has called on the privileged class to focus on the public health problems facing the poor.
Instead, if Abrams does grant her and the other members of Clean Power Lake County an audience, Burdette plans to simply tell her about the chemical that her family breathed for nine years while living near Abrams’s family’s plant. “I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt. I’m going to say she’s not aware of the science,” said Burdette. “If we can just sit down with her and present the honest truth, I’m hopeful she’ll make the right choice.”
Update: May 7, 2019
Wendy Abrams left the NRDC Board in December, according to a spokesperson for the group, which removed her from the list of board members on its website after this article was published.