CHICAGO (CBS) — Months ago, CBS 2 Investigator Dave Savini introduced viewers to Matt Haller, a man who died of stomach cancer.
Haller told CBS 2 before his death he believed his cancer was caused by elevated levels of ethylene oxide in the air near the Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook where he lived.
Announced on Monday a new Illinois law, the Matt Haller Law, is the strongest in the nation in providing protections against toxic emissions.
As that new law was announced, another cancer victim was telling her story for the first time.
CBS 2’s Dave Savini spoke exclusively with Heather Schumacher, a school principal from Barrington who is battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“I felt a lump in my neck and I knew that that was it,” she said.
Schumacher is coming forward to tell her story because she believes her cancer is a direct result of ethylene oxide emitted by Sterigenics. For decades the company used the gas, which is linked to cancer, to sterilize medical equipment.
Schumacher grew up three blocks away from the plant, and in 2007 she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“My biggest fear is that I won’t be around to see my children one day,” Schumacher said.
She said news of the newly created Matt Haller Law, which puts strict regulations on the use of ethylene oxide, couldn’t have come soon enough.
“I’ve melted down to nothing. I’ve got nothing left,” Haller said earlier this year. CBS 2 spoke with Haller numerous times, dating back to January of this year. He lived about a mile away from the plant and got stomach cancer. Haller wanted to know if it was from the ethylene oxide.
“Everything needs to be uncovered here. Everything needs to be uncovered,” he said.
Haller died in March, a day and a half after an interview with CBS 2 Investigator Dave Savini. It was a conversation he wanted to have, and even as he struggled physically, he was clear minded and still fighting.
He was thankful to whistleblowers who came forward earlier this year to CBS 2. They allege the company cut corners on safety and released ethylene oxide without properly filtering it.
Two former workers said ethylene oxide often escaped the facility. Mike Morales said he witnessed it during his work there as a forklift operator nearly two decades ago.
“The chambers would run different cycles. They would leak gas a lot of times. I swear to God,” said Morales.
“Whistleblowers, whistleblowers, come forward. Tell your story,” Haller said. “Tell us what you know. And let’s fight. Let’s fight this for the community, please”
“There’s a lot of things that were done that I believe people didn’t know about because that community would not have tolerated it,” Schumacher said.
Illinois State Senator Jim Durkin sponsored the ethylene oxide legislation and named it after Haller.
“It scares me. His words to me is ‘I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve had to got through,’” Durkin said. “The point is that they’ll be regulated more than they ever had before.”
“He’s a hero,” Schumacher said. “I look at him as a community hero. Somebody who’s advocating for anybody and everybody and who’s encouraging people to do what’s right.”
Schumacher is in remission and suing Sterigenics.
In March, the Illinois Department of Public Health released a cancer study. It revealed a 90% increase of her cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, during a 20 year period.
Sterigenics has denied all whistleblowers claims and said it followed all regulations and laws.
You may be wondering what is ETO or ethylene oxide used for. In the case of Sterigenics, it is used for sterilizing medical equipment. It is also used to make antifreeze, solvents, detergents, adhesives and is used as a pesticide on farms.
CBS 2 has been doing some digging and found that the EPA reports four other companies in Illinois have used ETO since at least 2016. Some of those companies include Vantage Speciality Chemicals in Gurnee, Ele Corporation in McCook, Stepan Company in Elwood and Tate and Lyle in Decatur.
Sterigenics released the following statement regarding the new legislation:
“Sterigenics takes very seriously our responsibility for the control and related emissions of ethylene oxide (EO). We have complied with and outperformed the requirements set forth by existing state and federal regulations and will continue to do so going forward.
As previously disclosed, Sterigenics has been recommending potential emission control improvement options to regulators for several months, the implementation of which would further enhance the control measures at our Willowbrook facility. We believe these measures will not only enable us to comply with the new Illinois law related to EO sterilization facilities, but will also establish our Willowbrook facility as the strongest emission control environment for EO sterilization in the country and provide further reassurance to the public.
Sterigenics is committed to the safety of our employees, the communities we operate in and the patients we serve and will continue to work with regulators, legislators and Illinois public officials to evolve regulations and continuously improve our operations in the ongoing interest of public safety.”