Rep. Rita Mayfield, right
Democratic state lawmakers are squeezed between voters panicked over news reports of cancer risks from industrial emissions of ethylene oxide (EtO), and a wealthy family of Democratic donors whose business in Lake County could be shut down under legislation that all but bans the use of the chemical.
House Democrats this week narrowly cleared a measure that phases in a near ban on EtO used by Medline in Waukegan to sterilize medical equipment.
Medline is owned by the Mills Family, which over the years has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emanuel and other Democratic politicians. The Millses political donations were most recently noted in a story of the family’s windfall from selling land along Lake Michigan to the city, land former Mayor Richard M. Daley proposed as one of the sites in a failed bid for 2016 Summer Olympics.
The House legislation was filed by Rita Mayfield (D-Waukegan), who could face a local anti-EtO activist in the primary elections. The Democrats favored her bill over one introduced by Minority Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) that would allow home rule municipalities to ban the use of EtO within their borders. The Senate is scheduled to take up the measure when the General Assembly returns to session on November 12; amendments are expected.
With the bill’s passage, Medline released a statement saying that it has strengthened emission controls at the plant, and warning of possible lay-offs and shortages of medical supplies if the bill is signed into law.
“Medline's 700 team members in Waukegan produce and sterilize more than 16,000 sterile surgical packs per day used by 135 hospitals in Illinois - nearly 80% of the state's hospitals,” the statement said. “And as the FDA stated on October 25, banning EtO for medical device sterilization could create a shortage of life-saving sterile surgical kits to treat patients. Contrary to what anti-EtO advocates suggest, EtO is the only globally accepted, FDA-approved method to sterilize many medical products that are essential to public health."
Another medical equipment sterilization company that used EtO, Sterigenics in DuPage County, decided to call it quits in Illinois late last month under a barrage of news reports about the health risks from EtO, reports that led to lawsuits, and pressure from local activists and elected officials.
The quandary for the Democrats is a reversal of sorts. In last year’s gubernatorial election, the party used former Republican Governor Bruce Rauner’s past financial interests in Sterigenics against him saying the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which the governor’s office oversees, withheld emission information from the local community.
The EtO panic is largely a media contrivance in the first place, air quality experts say.