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Blood Tests Show Higher Levels Of Potentially Cancer-Causing Gas In Those Who Live Near Waukegan Medline Plant

WAUKEGAN, Ill. (CBS) -- Some Waukegan residents have been fearing the worst living near a plant that emits a potentially cancer-causing gas.

Now, researchers say there is indeed evidence that higher levels of the chemical are showing up in some residents' blood.

CBS 2 Investigator Megan Hickey dug into the results Wednesday and asked what they mean for these families.

Kobe Darden, 11, was focused on finishing his homework when Hickey visited. But his mom, Annette, has something much more stressful on her mind.

Kobe underwent a blood test as part of a pilot survey conducted by researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health.

The level of the cancer-causing chemical ethylene oxide found in Kobe's blood is nearly twice that of the average non-smoker.

And for most of his life, he's lived about mile from Medline, a plant that sterilizes medical instruments using that colorless gas.

It is the same chemical emitted by Sterigenics, the Willowbrook plant.

"I can't even wrap my head around it, to be honest with you - the fact that we're dealing with this," said Annette Darden.

UIC's Dr. Susan Buchanan, Director Great Lakes Center for Children's Environmental Health, led the project. It took blood samples from 93 residents who live near the facility.

Since it's not a random sample, she cautions that it's important not to draw scientific conclusions.

Still, Buchanan said, "We found that the average level of people living closer to the plant was significantly higher than the average in the group that lived farther away."

The Dardens have joined the group "StopEtO of Lake County," with EtO being short for ethylene oxide.

"I'm strongly considering moving, and I don't want to do that, you know?" Annette Darden said. "This is where I made my home."

And they're taking it seriously.

"Any facility that is emitting a carcinogen, even legally, in my opinion shouldn't be located near homes, residents, daycare centers, or schools," Buchanan said.

A Medline representative tells me they're taking it seriously, too, but they question what, if any, conclusions can be drawn from this limited sampling.

"In the 25 years, we've never seen any indication that there's been elevated levels of EtO within our workforce," said Jesse Greenberg, Public Affairs Director for Medline.

Medline agrees with researchers that further scientific testing will help answer a lot of questions.

But ultimately, when asked if he thought residents who lived around Medline are safe, Greenberg said, "I do, I do."

Medline says they're also weeks away from completing a more than $10 million upgrade that they say will capture 99.9 percent of all ETO emissions.

Critics argue no level of ETO emission is safe.

Darden and other members of "Stop EtO of Lake County" say they plan to again take their concerns to the Waukegan City Council on Monday night.

In a statement, the Centers for Disease Control said:

CDC and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) staff have not conducted an independent analysis of the HbEO laboratory results or field data collected by the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Therefore, CDC/ATSDR are unable to comment on the findings of their study at this time.

To clarify, the test was not for the levels of ethylene oxide gas in participants' blood, but rather a measurement of the interaction of ethylene oxide with hemoglobin in the red blood cell (known as an adduct or HbEO). HbEO in blood is an indirect measurement of ethylene oxide exposure over the previous 120 day period.

CDC/ATSDR have not made a determination about conducting future hemoglobin ethylene oxide adducts (HbEO) studies.


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