Air pollution discriminates: One suburb forced a factory closure, others aren't so lucky

I regularly check the shades of blue on a map surrounding the Chicago suburb where I live. These shades of blue represent the elevated risk of cancer from a known carcinogen spewed from the nearby Sterigenics factory in Willowbrook.

As a registered nurse and mother of two children — one with asthma — I understand the need to pay heed to the chemicals and particles we inhale. That is especially true when the concentration of chemicals reached dangerously high levels  as was reported in July of 2018, by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The Environmental Protection Agency communicated the report and its findings of elevated health risks to local residents. Angry and distressed at the fact they were being poisoned, the citizens of Willowbrook and surrounding suburbs organized.

The grassroots organization, Stop Sterigenics, filed a lawsuit. Illinois Gov. Jay Pritzker took notice and the plant was shut down. The collective power of engaged and concerned citizens fighting the corporate beast and winning — it was an epic and well-deserved victory.

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A new Illinois Department of Public Health report released Friday showed increased rates of cancers in women and girls living near Sterigenics in Willowbrook between 1995 and 2015.

According to the report, incidences of Hodgkin's lymphoma were 90 percent higher for women in the area, at that time, compared to all four nearby counties. Pediatric lymphoma in females was also found to be elevated in comparison to the national average. Since the shutdown last month, average levels of the toxic gas have reduced in the area between 50 and 97 percent.

The story of air poisoning does not stop at the Sterigenics plant shutdown. Other air poisonings are happening nationally and locally, but by different names and in less affluent areas.

Recently, in Houston, a petrochemical fire from a nearby industrial park engulfed the city in a black cloud of particulate matter and toxic chemicals. In this case, government agencies are seemingly downplaying the pollution’s effect on its citizens’ health, stating they have no immediate health concerns.  Watchdog groups, however, are citing the many delirious effects particulate matter can have on health, including causing death.

In St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana — where the median income is almost half that in Willowbrook — citizens are facing levels of ethylene oxide and other carcinogenic chemicals at rates higher than those found in Willowbrook.

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The citizens of St. John the Baptist have mobilized to pressure industry to decrease their emissions of harmful chemicals. However, they have not had the same success that Willowbrook has seen with Sterigenics.

Many areas of Louisiana are known as “Cancer Alley,” areas of industry that have dangerously high air pollution with higher than average cancer rates afflicting the surrounding populations.

As in most cities and areas around the world, in Chicago, air pollution is concentrated in lower-income areas. In a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, Chicago’s South and West sides are home to the most environmental pollutions.

Certainly, I am not a climatologist or environmental pollution expert but as a registered nurse practicing in a hospital that serves the West side, I witness firsthand the lung disease, heart disease and cancer that my patients bear from the air pollution they breathe. I have watched the dread on the faces of my patient and their family as they tried to process the news of terminal lung cancer diagnosis. I have had a patient, clutch my hand in fear as their advanced COPD made every single breath a struggle. These patients had never picked up a cigarette in their life.

In addition to treating the direct effects of poor air quality on my patients, I have seen my own son struggle to breath from bouts of asthma that left him hospitalized for days. No mother should have to watch their child gasp for air.

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In a  recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, researchers reveal that nationwide, black and Hispanic minorities carry the majority of air pollution burden. The pollution, however, is caused by non-Hispanic whites. On average blacks and Hispanics carry a 56 percent and 63 percent excess exposure, relative to pollution caused by their consumption of goods and services. While whites experience 17 percent less air pollution than is caused by their consumption of goods and services.

As a white person, I understand that air pollution discriminates and is affecting the lungs of minorities in low-income areas at higher rates. Even when all citizens organize to protest and change air polluting practices, lower-income areas are not assigned the same urgency or attention as those in more affluent areas. I know I am lucky that Sterigenics shut down.

Air quality faces inequality. Air pollution is considered a greater health risk than smoking as well as pollution is linked to a shorter life expectancy by two years.  

Clean air is under threat. Some of President TrumpDonald John TrumpAmash responds to 'Send her back' chants at Trump rally: 'This is how history's worst episodes begin' McConnell: Trump 'on to something' with attacks on Dem congresswomen Trump blasts 'corrupt' Puerto Rico's leaders amid political crisis MORE’s advisors — individuals who have ties to tobacco, fossil fuel and chemistry industries — are disputing the health risks of air pollution, despite decades of sound evidence.  

Health care professionals, community advocates, lawyers, parents, concerned citizens can fight for factory closures, fair policies and laws for better air quality. Policymakers, corporate leadership and activists need to be informed to create better laws and fail safes to ensure quality of air and quality of life for all citizens.  

Everyone deserves the right to breathe clean air.

 Colleen Chierici is a telemetry registered nurse and president of the nursing staff at Rush Oak Park Hospital. She is a 2018 Illinois Nurse Leader fellow and a 2018 Public Voices fellow. Chierici  is also a member of the Illinois Kidney Advocacy Council, where she advocates for legislation protecting living kidney donors, kidney recipients and those living with kidney disease.