The Hazards of Ethylene Oxide Exposure

Industrial Plant for the production of ethylene, on a winter night

Ethylene Oxide may not sound familiar to you, but things like adhesives, detergents, solvents, anti-freeze, textiles, and pharmaceuticals should. These products are manufactured in such a way that can expose employees and contractors to Ethylene Oxide. Ethylene Oxide gases are hazardous substances used in the production of Ethylene Glycol, which is an ingredient in all of the previously mentioned products. Ethylene Oxide is also commonly used to sterilize medical equipment and devices that cannot be sterilized by steam.

Ethylene Oxide is Toxic

OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) describes Ethylene Oxide as a man-made, colorless, and highly toxic flammable gas that, when at room temperature, produces a sweet odor. This sweet-smelling gas, even in small amounts, can increase the risk of adverse health effects, such as:

  • Blurred vision
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Headaches
  • Memory loss
  • Nervous system conditions
  • Breast cancer
  • Non-Hodgkin lymphoma
  • Lymphocytic leukemia
  • Myeloma
  • Neurological disorders
  • Birth defects
  • Reproductive issues

The United States International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classify Ethylene Oxide as carcinogenic. Evidence by the EPA showed that any Ethylene Oxide exposure, specifically through inhalation, could increase the risk of lymphohematopoietic cancers (i.e. non-Hodgkin lymphoma, lymphocytic leukemia, and myeloma) long-term.

Even minimal exposure can wreak havoc on the human body. Unfortunately, workers aren't the only humans at risk of exposure to Ethylene Oxide. Anyone living or working near industrial companies that are producing or using Ethylene Oxide is at risk of exposure.

Requirements for Chemical Plants and Industrial Companies to Keep Workers Safe

To ensure human safety, state regulators now require employers to take many actions where chemical plant employees are exposed to permissible levels of Ethylene Oxide and other hazardous chemicals. These measures can include:

  • Limiting workers exposure
  • Developing and following essential workplace practices that limit worker exposure
  • Establishing a compliance program that is effective at reducing exposure
  • Monitoring chemical plant air to identify air pollutants
  • Usage of effective air testing control measures to regulate areas that may have higher airborne concentrations
  • Establishing and maintaining a medical surveillance program to minimize adverse health effects
  • Correct warning labeling of the hazardous chemical to minimize any unnecessary release
  • Preventing the rotation of employees interacting with the harmful chemicals
  • Providing employees with respiratory protection to control exposure and minimize the health risks associated with air pollution
  • Providing employees with an inside look into the air testing monitoring process
  • Notifying all workers within 15 working days if air testing monitoring results come back with toxic levels
  • Providing all workers with the possible risk of exposure with personal protective equipment, eye protection (non-vented and formed with impact-resistant materials), and respiratory protection
  • Training all workers on the usage, handling, and storage of Ethylene Oxide to minimize or eliminate dangerous accidents

These actions weren't requirements until recent years, meaning that exposure was much more likely a decade or more ago.

Ethylene Oxide Exposure in Illinois

Unfortunately, there has been one incredibly concerning case of exposure to Ethylene Oxide in Illinois- from within the walls of Sterigenics International industrial plant. For three aggravating decades, residents of Willowbrook inhaled Ethylene Oxide that was being systematically emitted from the industrial plant.

Sterigenics International, LLC and its parent company, GTCR, LLC, allegedly emitted Ethylene Oxide into the air since 1984, knowingly causing toxic air pollution that was harming the community. For the past three (almost four) decades, anyone who has lived, worked, or attended schools nearby have been exposed to this toxic chemical- a known carcinogen. Their facility in Willowbrook has presented a cancer risk of nearly three times the acceptable risk limit, according to the EPA's NATA (National Air Toxics Assessment). According to a 2018 report conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the cancer risk in the area was 64 times the acceptable risk limit. As a result, Willowbrook has placed in the 99.9th percentile nationally for cancer risk and has the highest cancer risk score in all of Illinois.

If you or a loved one has lived in, worked, or attended school in Willowbrook between 1984 and the present and you are experiencing symptoms or health issues consistent with Ethylene Oxide exposure--we want to help you. We offer a free review of your case and we want to ensure that if you were wrongfully exposed and are experiencing health issues as a result that you receive the compensation and justice that you deserve.


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