“Would you fight for someone you don’t even know?”
That question was posed by a candidate with a national platform and millions responded, “yes.” That is an easy response when it costs you nothing.
Would you fight for someone you don’t even know… if doing so could cost you everything? What if it meant risking personal safety… would you do it then?
Activism is easy when you are standing with a group. It is easy when you are in the spotlight collecting accolades and prestige. It is very easy when you can gather influence, garner credit, and even material wealth. But what if, buy speaking up, you knew that the ire of many would be directed at you; would you still speak up?
Some people have to make that choice. When they do, they reap the whirlwind for that effort and it may not be until years later — if ever- they are proven right. No one will remember them as a whistle blower or a ‘truth teller’. In fact, we now prosecute whistle blowers.
I hope you will remember this for what I write next.
This is a story of racism, collusion, corruption and a massive coverup. This is ultimately, I believe, a story of criminal negligence. I did not seek out the story, but in a strange twist of irony, the persons responsible sought me out.
I was not involved in this state race but knew of it. I myself was not a volunteer, nor a campaign staffer, and far too busy with other campaigns, national media, and other work. But it was an early morning breakfast meeting that piqued my interest.
An incumbent state representative, Rita Mayfield, drove quite a long distance to meet with me. This meeting was brokered by her associate, himself an activist and lobbyist. I am no one that these should be concerned with me and I live so far out of district.
It was at this long and delightfully pleasant meeting I understood why she had come. She asked me to stay out of her race for reelection.
“I am always going to side with the Progressive,” I told her. In response, she immediately began a litany of qualifications she believed were progressive enticements, including prior support for Sanders and such….all things I have heard from politicians before they are about to do something decidedly unprogressive. The rest of the meeting was pleasant, but slightly strained. She even spoke of reintroducing Medicare for All in the State House and asked if I would consult on that.
I asked her cohort to sit for an interview because I believed his advocacy on behalf of ex-felons and employment privacy rights was too important. He agreed to consider it.
I would later file a police report against this gentleman for credible threats made during a racial slur-laced rant over the phone.
What I found from other progressive organizers was troubling as they too had been courted through party acquaintances, with the same allure of introducing legislation for Medicare for All, promises of political appointments, favors to help others find employment, and other niceties.
All of these may have been sincere, but the timing was all wrong.
Now I was very interested in this race which, on the surface, seemed like nothing more than the standard incumbent versus progressive. I was so wrong.
I give full credit to reporter Sharon Lerner at The Intercept for her two excellent stories on the toxins pouring into the community and the blatant racism that revealed itself in the response. However, even a highly decorated journalist like Lerner missed part of this story as did CBS news reporters focused as they were on Willowbrook.
I thank all of these for their kind assistance in helping tell the rest of the story, the one alluded to, but untouchable by Chicago reporters.
What follows is the rest of that story and for disclosure, I am now a volunteer for the Democratic challenger, Diana Burdette, because I believe this district is deserving of a fighting chance.
Illinois has been in crisis for years over ethylene oxide (EtO) poisoning and the public did not know it. The threat to Illinois residents had not been reported in 2017 or 2018 by local representatives and Illinois Environmental Protection officials as required by state law. The events that followed showed just how deep corruption rising to the level of criminal negligence run in state politics and the role of money to influence policy and how misdirection of even good grassroots intentions is just par for the course.
It was the Chicago Tribune which broke the story on October 26, 2018, and again on November 2, 2018, alarming the public about an odorless, highly combustible, toxic carcinogen being emitted into the air around homes, schools, and businesses. The failure of legislative leadership continues for one county to this day.
(tons per year)
Highland Park Hospital Foundation
Captain James A Lovell Federal Health Care Center
Waukegan Illinois Hosp Co LLC d/b/a Vista Medical Ctr East
Baxter Healthcare Corp
Cardinal Health 200 Inc
Medline Industries Inc Northpoint Services Div
IEPA 2014 data, the last published, omits Vantage from the list.
In 2018 county agencies prompted by public outcry began with a series of hasty responses by local health officials to begin answering questions about the toxic gasses that had been invading their communities for years. Personal stories of mysterious illnesses, high levels of lymphoma and other cancers, unknown rashes and high levels of breathing difficulties began to take on new scrutiny with the systems of checks and balance within the state’s own environmental protection laws.
One community in DuPage County had their complaints heard while the other in Lake County has not. Willowbrook, a village of about four thousand residents boasts a median income of over $70,000 and median home values of $220,000, had their toxic polluter, Sterigienics, shut down by order of the governor in February 2019. It is estimated that as many as 19,000 residents around Willowbrook may have been exposed to toxic gasses for years, including several schools and business complexes.
In Lake County, the cities of Gurnee and Waukegan also had around 19,000 people exposed to the same toxin from two plants – Vantage and Medline that are still in operation. Gurnee has a median income of $90,000, a poverty rate of 5% and 74% Caucasian while Waukegan has a median income of $48,000 and a 73% minority population and a 17% poverty rate.
The reason given for this inaction can be found from two sources: a warning issued by the FDA and the hope of new legislation, Illinois House Bill 3888, dubbed, “EPA-ETHYLENE OXIDE PHASE OUT”. Both these ineffective responses would prove that cash is still king in Illinois and a choice was made to sacrifice a community.
FDA Warnings and Lobby Dollars
In February of 2019, less than six months after the public health threat became known to residents in Willowbrook about a highly carcinogenic odorless, colorless gas called ethylene oxide (EtO) had blanked communities, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker took decisive action to close the offending plant in DuPage County, Sterigenics, and order more air testing.
On October 25, 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning concerning the availability of medical equipment in response to the Sterigienics shut down in Illinois. In this rare statement, FDA Commissioner Sharpless warns of supply chain issues that may result because of these closures but does admit, “Although medical devices can be sterilized by several methods, ethylene oxide is the most common method of sterilization of medical devices…” noting that roughly half of all devices are sterilized using this chemical.
This was not the first time the FDA bent to the will of corporate lobbyists. Again, Chicago Tribune reporter Michael Hawthorne predicted this move in his October 2018 article by highlighting past actions. Hawthorne wrote:
“Ethylene oxide has been on the federal list of carcinogens since 1985. In December 2016, the U.S. EPA released a long-delayed reassessment that officially added the agency to a list of other national and international organizations declaring the chemical poses significant cancer risks for people.
“Every time federal or state regulators attempt to protect Americans from ethylene oxide, industry groups stoke the public’s fear of hospital infections.”
By November 2019, the FDA began working in earnest with medical device manufacturers to host innovation and supply chain discussions to identify safer sterilization processes across the industry because public outcry across the country continued unabated. The industry itself was beginning to grapple with making changes to appease public sentiment while balancing business needs for process improvements that had not been explored since 2004 when the EPA elevated EtO to a known carcinogen with elevated risks, primarily for employees at the sterilization companies. This was a full fifteen years after cancer and extreme health risks were reported to the industry and state agencies by the EPA.
The reason for this alarm across the FDA can be attributed to the millions spent by medical device manufacturers and industry lobby groups. Brenda Goodman writing for WebMD reported in September 2019, “Federal lobbying disclosures show medical device makers and sterilizers have spent more than $1 million over the past 12 months lobbying Congress and the EPA on ethylene oxide issues.”
This money was to garner support from the FDA and officials in the Trump administration to slow the curb on toxic chemical usage. Included in this effort was curtailing the database used to report medical device failures that resulted in injury or death. This system was intended to be an early warning for oversight and trigger product recall alerts as well as warn physicians who are obligated to protect their patients.
Along with the FDA, industrial manufacturing lobbies were gearing up for a fight. The closure of Sterigenics was challenged in Illinois courts while medical product titans began quietly pouring money into campaign coffers. Some of the largest companies in the country call Chicago home. Two of these are Abbott Labs and their subsidiary, Abbvie.
Abbott occupies a complex in Abbott Park, IL with reported revenue of $30 billion, and a complete medical equipment manufacturing facility using EtO as part of that process. Abbot donated sizable amounts to legislators across Illinois, including contributions to Rep Mayfield in August 2019 for a cumulative value of more than $16,000 since her tenure began. This single PAC has been generous to the tune of more than $740,000 since its inception in 2006, spreading that wealth among Illinois lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
In 2019, the same year Waukegan families were still fighting for relief, Abbott was featured in an investigation of companies taking advantage of a tax loopholes using Ireland’s ‘Double Tax’ that allowed them to use subsidiaries to avoid paying tax on €5.6 billion ($6.1 billion), at the same time netting €50 billion ($54 billion) from The International Development Association grants using Irish-registered companies in Bermuda. Abbott had not reported excessive air emissions nor detrimental hazards for employees. That is until one employee had her own blood levels tested as part of a community study investigating to EtO released by Medline in Waukegan.
The CDC funded a study at the University of Illinois, Chicago to determine whether elevated EtO levels would be detected in Lake County residents who had been exposed to the Medline and Vantage EtO leaks. They put out a call and residents like Teuta Boci Tanaka responded.
Tanaka, or Tea as she is known to fellow StopETO group members, is a senior researcher at Abbott Labs with extensive professional experience with antimicrobial biologics and co–authored several papers on analysis of biologic sterilization and antimicrobial research.
She seemed like a prime candidate to join the CDC study except researchers have not confirmed if they were aware of her employment at Abbot and her work in sterilization modalities.
Web MD published an overview of the findings of this test in December 2019, noting that of the 93 residents who participated in the study, all lived close to either Medline or Vantage facilities. The results were to be used to petition for additional funds for and controlled and in-depth study. Authors wrote of Tea:
“Tea Tanaka, one of the founders of the grassroots community group Stop EtO in Lake County, says her own level came back on the high end of the spectrum: 58.2. She lives about 4 miles from both facilities, but she works 2 miles south of Medline, an area which is often downwind of the plant. She thinks most of her exposure happens at work. Her husband, who works from home, had an average level: 26…”
“She says she and her husband have discussed moving.”
Abbott Park is just under two miles away to the West of Medline. Her husband’s test results were not nearly as high, the article points out, and clarifies that he works from home, which is five miles from Vantage and seven miles from Medline. She may have inadvertently proven that her own employer was posing a risk to employee’s health or that risk was exceedingly compounded by Abbott’s proximity to Medline. A spokesperson for Abbot has not confirmed if the facility provides testing of employees as part of their safety procedures.
In a Chicago Tribune article published on these same results, Tanaka was described as helping lead the push to get lawmakers to use the same authority exercised by Governor Pritzker to shut down the Sterigenics facility in DuPage County. This group, StopETO, has been effective in raising the issue locally and keeping the public informed of the risks as well as providing avenues for redress. In a community like Waukegan where median incomes fall around $48,000, the outlay of funds for civil lawsuits added to extensive medical bills, presents yet another significant challenge to residents still struggling through this issue. Meanwhile, in Willowbrook, IL, the number of civil cases grew to more than 70 individual claims against Sterigenics.
While Lake County communities focused on Vantage and Medline, Abbott was not waiting for Illinois legislators to finally enact restrictions. Instead, they had joined Sterigenics and others in accepting grants from the FDA to study alternatives to EtO usage. At the same time, Abbott and other healthcare and Pharma PACs were pouring money into candidate committees.
Mayfield, the representative for the district received over $16,000 in direct and PAC contributions from this one PAC since taking office. Abbott and Abbvie have several such funding vehicles apart from medical manufacturing PACs.
In May 2019, Diana Burdette and her family had been featured in one of two stories published by The Intercept. The author, Sharon Lerner, published, Air Pollution Crisis Exposes More Environmental Racism in Illinois, highlighting the obvious inequality in how the EtO threat was handled between Willowbrook, a 75% Caucasian community and Waukegan’s 73% Latino and African American community.
The story served as minor vindication for Diana Burdette who had left StopETO after fellow founding members from Gurnee, one an ex-Medline consultant, took offense to use of the terms, ”social justice” and “environmental racism.” The Gurnee members who self-identify as Caucasian had previously objected using a quasi-‘All Lives Matter’ rebuttal and asserting that white families were being affected as much as other ethnicities. Diana Burdette, a Latina from Waukegan, argued the difference was not that Caucasian suffered less, but that Waukegan had additional toxic sites, in all five of the state’s eleven Super Fund toxic areas. Waukegan is also a social justice community with a very high minority ratio and modest income, working families. Burdette and her husband, Dr. Burdette PhD., a local expert for EtO environmental concerns, parted ways with the group in April 2019 after this exchange and the insistence of board members to strip out any reference to racial bias in a per-approved speech Diana Burdette was to deliver to the EPA in Washington D.C. Dr. Burdette would deliver his comments before Congressional hearings on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists in the fall of that same year.
In August of 2019, a tiny portion of the heavy campaign donations transferred that month made its way to StopETO from Rep. Mayfield’s candidate committee, Friends of Rita Mayfield.
While the amount itself is small, the action may cross two important lines in Illinois ethics laws: Illinois Ethics laws ILCS 420 and 430 which discusses these events quite clearly. The reasoning behind these statutes is two-fold. First, the public has a right of redress that must not be stifled. Groups like StopETO are doing important work on behalf of affected communities to hold legislators accountable and have a Constitutionally protected right to do so. No candidate or officeholder may attempt to stifle that right when done in a lawful way. Coercion is itself a method of suppressing that right. Up to this point, both StopETO and the allied group, Clean Power Lake County, had, at least publicly, stayed neutral during Mayfield’s race with challenger Diana Burdette.
This conflict of interest using money, favors, cash, promises and “pay to play” tactics to quell the right of redress by undue influence of even a grassroots organization’s leadership may be illegal activity because of undue influence in the public’s right of redress in a way that detracts from a public good – in this case, redress a risk to life the candidate may be culpable for creating through apathy or negligent in addressing and reporting once known. This coercion stifles the public’s right to seek redress through accountability and justice. In short, it curtails a basic democratic system of checks and balances.
It was not just StopETO that became targets of Mayfield’s charity. She has also approached other grassroots organizations with similar enticements for drafting pet legislation or, as she had done with me, made personal requests to stay out of her race. This is exactly how machine politics works in Illinois and often, the beneficiary becomes an unwitting accomplice to manipulation through direct action, or purposeful inaction as best suites the needs of the politician.
In the case of Mayfield and EtO, she was the legislator at the state level tasked with the duty to represent the people of her five-time Super Fund district up to and including the EtO crisis. Even by August 2019, Mayfield had done very little while Senators Duckworth and Durbin rebuked the EPA from the Senate floor in Washington, D.C., and in Springfield, Representatives from both sides of the aisle were evaluating alternatives such as those submitted by Representative and House Minority Leader Durkin. Durkin, himself a cancer survivor, introduced two bills; HB5952 as a measure to stop Sterigenics should they have won their appeal to reopen in court and HB3885 which would allow communities like Waukegan to set their own rules regarding EtO emissions.
By August and under intense pressure to act, Rep. Mayfield needed a plan – and cover from fellow Democrats. In less than two weeks, she was able to produce one of the most flawed environmental protection bills targeting EtO yet and House Democrats fell in line.
As if to bolster this lack of serious attention, Durkin’s HB3885, introduced in November 2019, still has only one Democrat co-sponsor, Representative Mary Edly-Allen from Libertyville, and sits waiting for Speaker Madigan to revive it on the House floor.