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Medical Supply Sterilization Plant Employee Corrects Chicago Tribune’s Misleading Coverage

An April 13 letter to the editor in the Chicago Tribune addresses the paper’s misleading and alarmist narrative about the use of ethylene oxide (EtO). The letter’s author is a far more credible expert on the topic than the Tribune journalists; therefore, it deserves some attention.

As I have noted, here, here, and here, the Chicago Tribune’s awful reporting contributed to the shuttering of several facilities in 2019 that use EtO gas to sterilize medical equipment. These closures contributed to medical supply shortages this year, making it more difficult to battle COVID-19. Now, several of these plants fortunately have reopened, yet the Tribune continues to spread misinformation that undermines public health and safety.

The author, Joe O. Sanchez, identifies himself as the warehouse manager of the facility owned by Medline located in Waukegan, Illinois. This plant was temporarily closed on December 13, 2019, after the Tribune hyped its risks, but it reopened just a few weeks ago after doing some upgrades to its emissions controls.

The Tribune likes to present the issue as a case where big businesses don’t care about their communities. Yet, these facilities employ many members of these communities who understand the value of the work they do for the rest of us.

Sanchez explains: “We have begun decontaminating and reprocessing face masks, which will make available 100,000 face masks per day for the health care industry, and it will soon be even more. … Each day, hundreds of Medline employees proudly come to work in Waukegan because their jobs are essential to health care — to supporting frontline health care workers and our nation’s response to COVID-19.”

Despite the Tribune’s hysteria-generating coverage, the facility has operated safely for decades. The traces of EtO in the outside air surrounding the facilities measured in 2019 were “lower than the national average,” Sanchez points out. That’s impressive, since EtO is ubiquitous in the environment, released by combustion, volcanos, waterlogged soil, and vegetation. It’s also a byproduct of human metabolism.

Obviously, the facility does a great job controlling its emissions and keeping risks exceedingly low. “We literally have the best emissions control system in the world,” Sanchez says, which is something that the Tribute reporters don’t highlight in their alarmist stories.

The paper, to its credit, published this very helpful letter, but that’s not enough to mitigate the damage it’s already done. Unfortunately, if the Tribune continues with its inflammatory coverage, it may lead to regulations and future plant closures that will hinder our supply of sterile medical equipment well into the future.