According to the World Health Organization (WHO) 92 percent of the world’s population breathe polluted air,1 and nearly 7 million deaths can be attributed to air pollution each year.2 An overall toxic environment is responsible for at least 25 percent of deaths reported worldwide, and poor air quality is one of the greatest contributors to this risk.3
Your body is dependent on the air you breathe. Poor quality can damage your lungs, heart and other organs’ systems. Sources of pollution take the form of emissions from factories, cars, planes and aerosol cans. Secondhand cigarette smoke pollutes indoor air, as do volatile organic compounds emitted from many household items, such as carpeting, furniture and chemical cleaners.
Indoor air pollution may be dependent on ventilation in the building, as well as insulation and construction materials. Short-term health effects can include illnesses such as pneumonia or bronchitis and exacerbation of asthma. Many also suffer from headaches, dizziness and nausea triggered by chemicals.4
Particulate matter (PM), is a mixture of solids and liquid droplets in a wide range of sizes. PM 2.5 — particulate matter 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller — can only be seen with an electron microscope and is small enough to pass through your lungs and into your bloodstream.5
Long-term effects of this type of air pollution can last a lifetime and may even lead to death after damage to your heart, lungs, kidney, liver, brain or nervous system. Scientists also suspect air pollutants may trigger birth defects.6
Ethylene Oxide Poisons Air in Willowbrook and St. John the Baptist Parish
One such air pollutant is ethylene oxide poison belching from the stacks at Sterigenics in Willowbrook, Illinois, a small affluent suburb of Chicago in DuPage County. Sterigenics uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment, pharmaceuticals and food, and has been discharging the gas into the community for the past 34 years.7
Only after the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), a division of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), assessed levels of ethylene oxide in 2016 did the surrounding neighborhood learn of the danger. Although levels had been measured in the past, the chemical’s status had been recently upgraded from “probable human carcinogen” to “carcinogenic to humans.”8,9,10
Although the levels released into the air near the plant remained roughly the same, since the IRIS had adjusted the risk level, official reflection of risk suddenly skyrocketed.
The EPA considers the “upper limit of acceptability” for cancer risk 100 cancers for every 1 million people. In the most polluted area in DuPage County, the risk of cancer was now 282 per million. However, the values set by the IRIS were not binding, leaving residents in Willowbrook with a precisely quantified threat but no obvious way to legally address it.11
Sterigenics was previously owned by a private-equity firm cofounded by then-governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner. One year later he left the firm to campaign for public office. Although unavailable to answer detailed questions, Rauner criticized officials for releasing the report, saying:12
“This is not an emergency. This is not a public health immediate crisis. This is something we are managing. We are going to work with the federal government to monitor this whole situation … and try to reduce exposures from this as much as we can.”
EPA and Legislator Response Dramatically Different Based on Location
Although the situation in Willowbrook is drastic, the air quality in St. John the Baptist Parish in Louisiana is deplorable. This small, mostly African-American community along the Mississippi River is 30 minutes west of New Orleans with an even bigger ethylene oxide problem from a factory making chemicals used in cosmetics.
In St. John, the cancer risk from the gas is 317 per million. But ethylene oxide is only one pollutant in the air in St. John. In the most heavily polluted tract the air contains 45 industrial pollutants known to cause cancer and other serious health problems.
One of those chemicals is chloroprene, emitted from the country’s one remaining neoprene factory.13 The combination of these chemicals raises the risk for residents in the small neighborhood from 317 per million to over 1,500 per million, making it the most dangerous neighborhood in the U.S., according to the EPA’s report.
However, while the EPA is working alongside local and state officials to address the dangerous levels of ethylene oxide in the Willowbrook neighborhood, the agency has done next to nothing in St. John the Baptist Parish.
Concurrently, St. Charles, Louisiana, located just 30 minutes from St. John, hasn’t received a visit from the EPA staff either, even though Dow Union Carbide plant spits out ethylene oxide and has raised the cancer risk in St. Charles to 710 per million, according to EPA reports.
The EPA and state legislature in Illinois have played key roles in monitoring air near the Sterigenics plant, eventually ordering the plant to shut down,14 while eight other polluted and struggling communities have received no assistance from the EPA at all. Wilma Subra, an environmental consultant, commented on the disparities between Willowbrook and other poorer communities:15
“No one has required anyone to even consider putting on control technologies here. In Illinois, EPA had ATSDR [Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry] 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.”