By Karen Berner, ACE Communications Team Leader
Neringa Zymancius and Sri Rao had no warnings before they attended the town hall meeting telling them toxic gas was being released in their neighborhood 24/7. Zymancius felt she needed to do something, so she started a support group page on Facebook called “Say No to EtO.” Then, the research began, followed by the protests.
The activists from Stop Sterigenics! spoke with ACE members on March 17, 2019, to sharing their personal stories and those of their grassroots group’s success in shutting down the Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook.
Sterigenics and other plants like it around the country sterilizes medical equipment with ethylene oxide, which is a known carcinogen and a chemical that is banned in other countries outside of the United States. The plant had been operating for 34 years in a residential neighborhood, yet as of 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency hadn’t even studied the chemical, its emissions, or the affect on surrounding communities.
An unusually high number of area residents had been suffering from respiratory illnesses, nausea, headaches, fatigue, and eventually even cases of cancer.
“(Former Illinois Governor Bruce) Rauner owned the plant. That helped us get the word out because it was an election season,” Rao said. Their social media presence grew quickly to 7,000 people. Publicity from Rauner’s involvement bolstered the Stop Sterigenics! movement, which also had bi-partisan support from Rep. Bill Foster (IL-11), Jim Durkin (IL-82) and DuPage County Board Chariman Dan Cronin.
“What’s the purpose of life? Protecting your family,” Zymancius said. “If we don’t fight now, what are we going to say to our kids? We feel the remnants of this chemical every day.”
The group is now working on getting ethylene oxide emissions banned. “If cigarettes have warnings, why don’t products being sterilized by a Group 1 carcinogen?” Rao asked.
There are certain to be more lawsuits filed, especially after the death of Matt Haller, 45, the first litigant to sue Sterigenics. He died of stomach cancer earlier in this month.
“Sterigenics isn’t even the worst emitter. How many more people are out there who are sick?” Zymancius added, mentioning the 37 other plants across the U.S. “I’m starting to focus on the national side. I can’t imagine another four-year-old having to lose his father from stomach cancer.”
Since the Willowbrook plant has been closed, air quality has improved around the area.
“If it’s stopped, it will go away,” said Rao. “In about a year, we will have clean air.”
The organization has lobbied in Washington, D. C. to ban ethylene oxide emissions by homes and schools. “We all have full-time jobs and kids. We’re trying to do the best we can to fight this,” said Rao.
“We’re so determined,” Zymancius added. “This is literally life and death for us.”
ACE Communications Team Leader Karen Berner has been a professional writer/editor for more than 30 years. An award-winning journalist, her work has appeared in several magazines, newspapers, and blogs, including the Chicago Tribune, Writer Unboxed, Women’s Fiction Writers, Naperville magazine, and Fresh Fiction. She also is the author of three contemporary women’s fiction novels and is a member of the Chicago Writers’ Association.