CHICAGO – Industry-connected political appointees in the Trump administration blocked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from investigating ethylene oxide polluters and prevented career staff from warning thousands of Americans who live near sources of the cancer-causing gas, according to a scathing new report from the agency’s inspector general.
The latest findings by the independent watchdog add more details to reporting by the Chicago Tribune since August 2018, when the Trump EPA released the latest National Air Toxics Assessment without notice and left it up to state and local officials to decide for themselves whether to draw attention to elevated cancer risks in their communities.
On multiple occasions, the inspector general found, Trump political appointees in Washington ordered staff in the EPA’s Chicago office to dramatically scale back efforts to understand the dangers of ethylene oxide in the Midwest, most notably in west suburban Willowbrook and two north suburbs, Gurnee and Waukegan in Lake County.
Repeated political interference and a woeful lack of public education about the dangerous gas ran counter to the EPA’s mission of protecting human health and the environment, the report concluded.
“They prevented the agency from protecting these communities,” said Nicole Cantello, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, which represents unionized employees at the agency’s Chicago office.
More than a half-million Americans exposed to toxic air pollution face unacceptable cancer risks, according to EPA data mapped by the Tribune in 2019. Ethylene oxide is the chief chemical of concern.
Considering what the inspector general’s investigators found, there is a good chance the data could have remained buried in the federal bureaucracy.
A handful of career staffers at the Chicago office helped bring local impacts to light by deploying air monitoring equipment outside an agency warehouse that happened to be next door to Sterigenics, one of the nation’s largest sources of ethylene oxide.
They gave their May 2018 findings to another federal health agency, which determined that cancer risks in neighborhoods near the company’s Willowbrook sterilization plant could be orders of magnitude higher than initially estimated: up to 6,400 per million, or more than six cases of cancer for every 1,000 people exposed to the toxic gas during their lifetimes.
To put that alarming rate in perspective, the EPA considers it unacceptable if 100 cases of cancer are diagnosed for every million people who inhale air pollution.