The class action lawsuit against Sterigenics is underway in Willowbrook. The company is accused of releasing cancer-causing waste in DuPage County.
But long before the Sterigenics case, residents in the suburb of West Chicago struggled with health issues stemming from the mismanagement of toxic waste in that community. Kerr-McGee claimed responsibility in 1980. The hazardous waste wasn’t removed until 2015.
And the health issues remain.
Associate professor Ted Hogan of Northern Illinois University spent his early childhood in West Chicago and remembers playing in the ponds near the Kerr-McGee factory with his older brother, grabbing tadpoles, “Some of them were deformed, which didn't make any sense to me. But later on, I have a deeper understanding of that.”
Hogan went on to get a Ph.D. that allows him to better protect people in the workplace and prevent future chemical environmental hazards. His career path was influenced by his own personal exposure to toxic chemicals.
However, he still gets upset regarding his experience in the West Chicago pond, “as a child that wasn't even an opportunity to know what the exposures were and what the risks were and I have a hard time dealing with that.”
Professor Hogan is not alone in this feeling. Erika Bartlett came to a similar frustration when she was experiencing Leukemia.
Bartlett wondered if her upbringing growing up in a toxic site led to her getting cancer. She came across a 1991 study by the Illinois Department of Public Health that found high rates of cancer in West Chicago. This led her to do her own research, knocking on doors in West Chicago to find out if other people were experiencing health issues.
“When I first talked to people, I really wasn’t sure if I would find any connection. But the more people I talked to, the more clear it was to me that there was kind of a pattern I was seeing with that seemed to be high instances of cancer in the area surrounding the factory and the polluted sites in the town,” Bartlett said.
“Some of the people weren’t necessarily aware of the whole story,” she says.
Julieta Alcantar-García was born and raised in West Chicago and still lives there to this day. She believes that a lack of transparency is the base of this problem, especially for the Latino community that moved into West Chicago. Many Latino homebuyers were completely unaware of the history of the Kerr-McGee factory and did not know about the toxic chemicals in the soil.
“Most of these people did not know English … There was no disclosure. There was nothing telling them, [nor] any warnings.”
That is why Alcantar-García helped start PODER, in order to ensure that DuPage Latino residents know what is going on in the community. Latinos now make up 55% of the city, the largest of all DuPage County.
“There is still so much work to do,” Alcantar-García.
For many of these residents, they are seeking justice.
“I’m hopeful that the residents of West Chicago will continue to work together to raise awareness and advocate for change and accountability in regards to these situations, as they continue to occur and disproportionately impact vulnerable populations,” Bartlett said. “Our country should be protecting our people, not exploiting them in the name of profit and greed.”