This is an excerpt from “Tracking the Invisible Killer: Trump EPA Invited Companies to Revise Pollution Records of a Potent Carcinogen,” written by Sharon Lerner:
Millie Corder didn’t know why there was so much cancer in her family. Her daughter, Cheryl, was only 27 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and 34 when the disease killed her in 2002. By that time, Millie’s husband, Chuck, had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He recovered, only to develop skin cancer in 2005. The next year, Millie herself was diagnosed with colon cancer and, two years after that, with breast cancer. Those years were a blur as she shuttled back and forth between her office, her home, and doctors’ appointments. While she was recovering, Chuck died of his cancer. Two years later, her stepson, Brian, was diagnosed with and died from lung cancer.
Millie Corder still can’t say for sure why her family was devastated by cancer. But since burying her daughter, stepson, and husband, she’s learned that the neighborhood where they lived and worked in Lake County, Illinois, has been inundated with dangerous amounts of a colorless, carcinogenic gas called ethylene oxide. Others in Gurnee, as well as nearby Waukegan, have been experiencing similar realizations over the past two years, since they began gathering in the basement of a local church to see what they could do to stop the pollution.
Stop EtO in Lake County was founded to limit the cancer-causing gas, which was coming from local plants, but it also became a way for members to trace their troubling cancer “coincidences.” Yvonne Davies, whose follicular lymphoma began as a hard but painless lump behind her left ear, learned that twin brother of another group member, Sarah Crawford, had developed the same cancer; he had grown up near Davies’s house. Patty Bennett, who had moved to Gurnee to escape a landfill that was near her previous home, went to a local forum on chemicals and cancer and found herself randomly seated next to a young woman who had been diagnosed with the same rare form of leukemia that she had. And Chandra Sefton, who has lived in both Waukegan and Gurnee, was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia: a form of cancer that is caused by ethylene oxide exposure in mice and rats.
Peggy Innes, who had three separate cancers, felt like a walking statistical anomaly. “I’m like, ‘Where are all these bloody cancers coming from?’” Innes said of her reaction to getting a colon cancer diagnosis, after having the disease in both breasts. “I had the test for the BRCA gene, and it came back negative. I don’t smoke. I exercise. I’m a line dancer. I eat healthy. What the hell? Then I found out about the ETO group. And I thought, Aha! Oh my God, we’re living in a cancer zone.”
Lake County, Illinois, is home to two industrial facilities that release ethylene oxide. Medline in Waukegan uses the gas to sterilize medical equipment. And Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee uses ethylene oxide to make other chemicals and consumer products.
Amid mounting pressure from advocates and a flurry of lawsuits, including one filed on behalf of Sefton and Bennett, Illinois passed two laws regulating ethylene oxide in 2019. One — named for Matt Haller, who died of cancer after living near a plant in Willowbrook, Illinois — limited the emissions from sterilizing plants. Another, which applies to Vantage, required the plant to do air modeling of the gas to illustrate the precise risk the emissions pose to people nearby and to get a more restrictive permit. Meanwhile, both companies agreed to reduce the amount of the gas they released. Medline’s new permit capped its emissions at 150 pounds per year. For Vantage, the new limit was 110 pounds. And Lake County agreed to conduct air monitoring near both facilities.
John Aldrin, a local scientist and member of Stop EtO in Lake County, kept a close eye on the air monitoring. From his house, he could see the homes of three people who developed cancer, and Aldrin hoped that the monitoring done after both facilities began operating under stricter permits would finally show their air was safe. Alternatively, he thought, the monitoring might reveal an ongoing danger that would lead to further action from the companies and regulators. What Aldrin didn’t anticipate was that the county’s monitoring would show a risk — and that no one would address it.
Yet that is exactly what’s happened. Even in Illinois, the state that has done the most to combat ethylene oxide pollution, people are still exposed to levels of the chemical above a safety threshold the Environmental Protection Agency set more than four years ago. Realizing that the community had been exposed for decades, Aldrin and his neighbors didn’t feel they could take the emitting companies and the regulators at their word when they said they had addressed the toxic threat.
Some chemicals have a distinct smell. Others kill fish that float on the water or discolor soil, water, or air. But ethylene oxide is colorless and has no odor unless it’s present at very high concentrations. And there is no obvious way to know when it is being released — and entering people’s bodies — at unsafe levels. So to ensure their air is safe, local activists rely on public records.
But while the community group was plumbing the public records on ethylene oxide, companies that release the chemical were quietly conducting their own campaign: changing those records to make their emissions appear smaller and less harmful, thus erasing hundreds of thousands of pounds from the public record. What’s worse, in at least some cases they appear to have done so at the invitation of the EPA, which, under the leadership of former chemical industry executives appointed by President Donald Trump, aggressively rolled back air pollution safeguards.