Tests for ethylene oxide in Lake County are done. What happens next?
With the third and final round of air quality testing for cancer-causing ethylene oxide near factories in Gurnee and Waukegan concluded, local officials are urging experts to quickly analyze the findings and determine the community's risk.
Results of 606 samples taken over the past year near Vantage Specialty Chemicals in Gurnee and Medline Industries in Waukegan have been forwarded to federal and state authorities to determine what they mean.
The pending analysis will involve a lot of math and computer modeling, as the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry conducts a health risk assessment based on the results, said Mark Pfister, executive director of the Lake County Health Department.
"We're looking forward to the experts doing what they do best," he said.
The analysis will determine what the community exposure is, or has been, where people "live and play," according to Pfister. Bands of risk areas will be determined based on the data.
The air quality testing on behalf of Lake County, Gurnee and Waukegan took part in three phases. The most recent, which ended May 2, involved samples collected from 12 sites every third day for a month.
"We're excited the data is now in the hands of the experts," Pfister said. "We're very interested to see what the findings are and how those findings are communicated," to the public.
The health department has posted the results online, but has not made conclusions.
In a related action, the Illinois Department of Public Health has agreed to conduct a cancer incidence study to provide a retrospective look over 20 years.
The two analyses are expected to take several months, according to Lake County health officials. But a speedy review is being urged by U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider and others.
"I look forward to working with ATSDR to ensure this work is completed in a timely manner so that all of our communities can have confidence in the safety of the air we breathe," Schneider said in a statement.
Lake County Board Chairwoman Sandy Hart had a similar message and asked the ATSDR and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to "communicate the findings directly to our Lake County community."
Hart said the testing "has identified concentrations of EtO (ethylene oxide) that concern me."
"We now ask our federal partners to do their part and analyze our air monitoring results, assess and quantify the risk to our Lake County residents and directly provide answers to this ongoing community health concern," she added.
Citing a large population of minorities in Waukegan, a group called StopEtO Lake County contends "environmental racism" is a big factor in why the companies have been "allowed to pollute" and not faced a state-mandated shutdown.
Ethylene oxide is a colorless gas used in making a range of products and to sterilize equipment and plastic devices that cannot be sterilized by steam. Vantage uses the substance to make household items, such as soap and shampoo. Medline uses it to sterilize medical equipment and devices.
The U.S. EPA classified ethylene oxide as a human carcinogen in December 2016, saying long-term exposure increases the risk of cancers of the white blood cells, including Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, myeloma and lymphocytic leukemia, as well as the risk of breast cancer in women.
The county and communities, after initially meeting resistance from state and federal authorities, implemented their own testing program and shared the cost. The Illinois EPA funded the second and third phases.
Over the course of the testing period, a measure said to be the most stringent in the nation regarding EtO emissions was signed into state law.
As a result, both companies upgraded their emission controls. Medline invested $10 million and operations using EtO shut down for more than three months.
"Medline's top priority has been and will continue to be the safety of our employees and our community," said spokesman Jesse Greenberg.