Diseases and Illnesses Associated with Ethylene Oxide

Chronic, low level exposure to ethylene oxide has been linked to a variety of illnesses. Most notably cancer, neurological issues, respiratory irritation and potentially miscarriages. To summarize, ethylene oxide is a known mutagen, carcinogen and endocrine disruptor:

▪ ATSDR – Ethylene Oxide CAS# 75-21-8 (*updated 1999) (Click here)
▪ ATSDR – Toxicological  Profile for Ethylene Oxide  (*updated 1990, 122 pages) (Click here)
▪ ATSDR – Public Health Statement CAS# 75-21-8 (*updated 1990, 4 page summary) (Click here
▪ OSHA – Ethylene-Oxide-Fact Sheet (updated 2002) (Click here)
▪ EPA – Ethylene-Oxide Hazard Summary (**updated December, 2018) (Click here)
▪ NIH – Ethylene Oxide – Cancer-Causing Substances (Click here)

In addition, on March 29, 2019 Illinois Department of Public Health released their retrospective study of cancer rates that sheds light on actual cancer incidence from the era of 1995-2015. Their retrospective study data was focused on the vicinity of the point source of ethylene oxide in Willowbrook, IL (Click here)

Some highlights from the IDPH Report:

  • Two study areas were created based on census tracts and an air sampling/exposure model. Study area 1 included nine census tracts around the Sterigenics facility, and study area 2 included study area 1 and eight additional census tracts. These were compared to cancer rates in DuPage County and an additional State cohort of 5 counties.
  • The total cancer cases in study area 1 was 4,534 cases and study area 2 was 9,416 cases. When analyzing observed versus expected cancers for male and female from study area 2 compared to DuPage County there were 168 additional incidences of cancers found.
  • Breast cancer was elevated by about 10%, when comparing the study areas to the state reference group. The elevation became non-significant when the study areas were compared to the county reference group. This change could be plausibly explained by the fact that DuPage County has consistently displayed higher levels of breast cancer compared to other counties in the state (IDPH-ISCR 2018). Despite the loss of statistical significance, there was still a suggestion that breast cancer was high even in relation to DuPage County warranting further investigation.
  • Hodgkin’s lymphoma rates were observed to be high in females of study area 1. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma rates in females displayed a consistent and increasing trend over the time period examined, and was statistically significant in the most recent time period, 2009-2015.
  • Other adult cancers observed to be diagnosed at higher rates than the county include: Female pancreatic cancer in study areas 1 and 2, ovarian cancer in study area 1 and bladder cancer in study area 1. Male prostate cancer was observed to be high in both study areas.

We would add the following concerns of the IDPH study. The census tract scheme used for study area 1 (population 31,808) and study area 2 (population 72,029) may be inadequate to thoroughly assess the impact from the presumed Primary ethylene oxide source. This is due to the irregularly shaped borders of each census tract surrounding the point source, causing the study to include a significant number of people to the south that are far away from the source, and left out others to the east who are generally closer to the point source. A significant percentage of the people included in the study area 1 may therefore be many miles downwind from the point source.

*We note that the ATSDR Fact Sheet supplied to the Willowbrook, IL and vicinity contains a revision only as “recently” as 1999. Clearly, there is need for updated data in terms of chronic, long term, low dose exposure data in a residential community.
**While the EPA Hazard Sheet was updated as of 12/2018, we feel that the depiction of the lifetime cancer risks being downplayed is not a scenario that has been borne out as of yet in our Willowbrook, IL and vicinity communities. 

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