Higher rates of cancer detected near Sterigenics' Willowbrook facility, IDPH study finds

WILLOWBROOK, Ill. (WLS) -- A study by the Illinois Department of Public Health has potentially confirmed the worst fears of residents in southwest suburban Willowbrook: That the chemical emission of nearby medical supply sterilization plant Sterigenics cause cancer.

The medical supply sterilization company, which has been in Willowbrook since 1984, was forced to shut down last month after testing showed dangerous levels of ethylene oxide in the air in a radius around the Sterigenics plant. Numerous residents have been diagnosed with cancer and other ailments in recent years. Many blame Sterigenics and the toxic chemical the company releases into the air.

The IDPH had set out to determine if there were increased cancer cases in the area surrounding Sterigenics by looking at cases occurring in the area surrounding the facility between 1995-2015 and comparing those incidences with rates in Cook County and five other collar counties.

The study, released Friday, did find that the incidence of some cancers in the area surrounding Sterigenics was elevated, according to a press release from the agency. IDPH identified higher rates of Hodgkin's lymphoma as well as ovarian, breast and pancreatic cancers.

The study also found that girls were at a greater risk of developing lymphoma.

A community group called "Stop Sterigenics" feels vindicated by the findings.

"It is not surprising to us," said Steve Leopoldo, a member of Stop Sterigenics. "We have been going to neighborhood meetings and talking to folks in the community. A lot of people in our community have cancer."

Sri Rao, another Stop Sterigenics member, agrees.

"All you have to do is go down my block and talk to every single neighbor," Rao said.

There was one thing about the study that surprised Rao, however.

"Looking at the methodology of the study, they only counted people who still live here. This is a community where lots of people have grown up and moved away," he said.

Scientists recommend further research on the risks associated with ethylene oxide in Illinois and at the national level as this study was the first of its kind in the nation.

In a statement, Sterigenics agreed that the findings warrant closer study, but said it would be "unreasonable to use the findings as evidence of any link between ethylene oxide, Sterigenics and the incidence of cancer in the Willowbrook area," given the "numerous differences and inconsistencies highlighted in the report."

Read Sterigenics' full statement here

A separate study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week found that levels of EtO quickly dropped after the company's forced shutdown.

Some lawmakers are hoping to make that shutdown permanent.

"For the longest time this has been a manner of conjecture and speculation. Now we have an official public health agency that has made it clear the danger that the Sterigenics facility creates in this community," Senator Dick Durbin said in a statement regarding the IDPH's findings Friday.

"Ultimately they shouldn't be doing business," said Dan Cronin, chairman of the DuPage County Board. "They should start making plans to leave the area and the state of Illinois and maybe this chemical is too dangerous to be used for the purpose that it is."

As for who is responsible for permanently closing Sterigenics, lawmakers and advocates had different answers.

"We have enough evidence. We need really strong legislation out of Springfield to make sure this place shuts down forever," Leopold said.

Durbin, however, called on the EPA.

"They have the authority to close down these dangerous facilities. It's time they step up and do it," he said. "There comes a point where the public health and protection of innocent people is more important than any bureaucratic or administrative concern."

Previous coverage:

RELATED: EPA tests shows rapid drop in cancer-causing chemicals following Willowbrook Sterigenics closure
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RELATED: Sterigenics files emergency motion to reopen Willowbrook facility
RELATED: Willowbrook Sterigenics plant shut down Friday night
RELATED: Lawmakers join call to stop Sterigenics from operating in Willowbrook
RELATED: Willowbrook residents call for Sterigenics shutdown after latest tests
RELATED: Group releases 1984 EPA letter about cancer-causing chemical in Willowbrook
RELATED: Water tested for cancer-causing chemical near Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook
RELATED: New EPA data reveals cancer-causing chemical still present near Sterigenics
RELATED: Sterigenics lawsuit goes to court Thursday, EPA holds packed forum in Willowbrook
RELATED: Sterigenics air quality measurements flawed, EPA says
RELATED: 2 Lake County medical manufacturing plants' toxic emissions cause concern
RELATED: Illinois AG files lawsuit against Sterigenics over alleged toxic air pollution violations
RELATED: Lisa Madigan: Rauner's office hid health dangers of Willowbrook Sterigenics plant for months
RELATED: Illinois EPA orders Sterigenics to cease operations in Willowbrook until safety review complete
RELATED: EPA to test air quality after Sterigenics emissions concerns
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