Sterigenics: Winning the War, Part 4

In our first three essays (Part 1, Part-2, and Part 3 ), we recounted how a small group of past employees of Hinsdale South High School (South) banded together to notify other past employees of their exposure to ethylene oxide (EtO) while they worked at South.  This Notification Project was inspired by the efforts of a grassroots community group, Stop Sterigenics, which successfully got the source of that EtO, two Willowbrook Sterigenics medical instrument sterilization plants, closed—temporarily in February 2019, and permanently seven months later.  The efforts of both Stop Sterigenics and this group of past South employees in taking on the problems of local pollution sources and the challenges of informing past workers of potential health issues which came to light later (in some cases, decades after employment had ended) points to some larger issues as we move beyond Willowbrook and Hinsdale South High School.  In other words, it’s wonderful what those two groups have accomplished, but now what?

First and foremost, EtO should never be released anywhere near humans, and its use should be regulated much more strictly than it currently is.  Sterigenics closed its Willowbrook facilities, but has yet to concede the closure resulted from its pollution, claiming it was the “unstable legislative regulatory landscape ” of Illinois which led to its departure.  As of yet, the company remains adamant that its EtO release had no ill effects on those who lived and worked near them.  Sterigenics and various companies continue to release EtO in other communities throughout the U.S., and throughout the world.  Willowbrook is, after 34 years, safe from EtO pollution, but Georgia and New Mexico (to name two) are still battling industry efforts to release EtO, and Sterigenics alone has 49 facilities in 13 different countries. 

This cannot go on.  Those who lived, worked, and survived in Willowbrook can attest to the health risks EtO poses, and the industry argument that no other means to sterilize medical supplies exists is wrong. It might cost (initially) more to use other, safer methods to achieve similar results, but there are several alternatives to EtO for virtually all of its current uses.  The simplest solution, then, is that we stop all ethylene oxide usage, and I would argue, that is the best long-term solution.  As we transition to that outcome (as quickly as possible, with specific legislation and many, many inspections to ensure compliance with various ordinances…check that, strict ordinances…in place), we should at the very least ban EtO emissions in all population areas.  It is unclear if there is a “safe” level of exposure to what is classified as a carcinogen; the question then becomes why would we continue the unsuccessful experiment of releasing EtO in populated areas when we already know the damage exposure has caused in the past?  Why should people have to live near a source of breast cancer, lymphomas, and fertility/miscarriage problems?  The faster we stop using this toxic gas for industrial purposes, the better.

Second, we need to do a better in notifying people of health risks to which they were exposed due to where they lived or worked in the past.  I know that privacy is very important and an endangered concept in our society, but a central data base with a history of where we have lived and worked makes sense as we discover how more and more of the “wondrous” inventions humans created actually have a dark side which have been inflicting harm to other humans for a long time.  This resource is crucial especially since that harm is often undiscovered for many years after those affected have left an area where the actual cause/effect relationship took place.  If a data base like this had been in place in the case of Willowbrook’s Sterigenics plants, for example, it would have been possible to create a contact list of those who might have been impacted by EtO release and quickly let them know. 

As it is, thousands of people are probably unaware of what took place in Willowbrook; in our small South past employees notification project, for example, most of the people we reached were learning about their EtO exposure for the first time:  Once people leave an area, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to tie their future illnesses to their past living or working arrangements.  And to the best of my knowledge (limited, admittedly), there have been few if any efforts to contact past employees or residents about the dangers to which they were exposed by any of the businesses and organizations located even closer to the Willowbrook plants than Hinsdale South was.  No one here is accusing anyone of anything, but the Willowbrook Police Department, a Marriot hotel, a Target, a Denny’s, a Starbucks, and a host of other businesses, schools, and governmental agencies are all much closer to where the Sterigenics plants were than Hinsdale South High School was.  What, if any, efforts have been made to find and inform all the people who worked in and around these two toxic plants?  No matter how much publicity this issue garners, as our South Notification Project illustrated, most people do not have enough information to make the connections unless someone provides them with the facts.  In an information age, we still have many gaps in our ability to inform, unfortunately. 

From anticipating future health issues to participating in lawsuits to hold responsible parties accountable, this kind of knowledge is vital and should be readily available to everyone who may have been affected by these types of health issues.  But that is not currently the case.  If only there were a resource where addresses for every place we worked or lived was collected…but wait, there already is.  As anyone who helped to track down those who had worked at South over twenty years ago can tell you, all you need is a name and a past city/state of residence (and if a name is unusual enough, that alone is enough), and you can use the Internet to find just about anybody right now.  Using all the data we currently provide to Amazon—without a second thought in order to get moisturizer delivered to our doors in two days—instead so we can safeguard our health doesn’t seem like a huge sacrifice to me.

Even if we won’t allow that kind of Big Brother data collection (but please don’t kid yourself that you aren’t already willingly participating in exactly that, unless you emulate Ron Swanson), at the very least we should have a notification option through our local governmental agencies or employers.  When you move or leave a job, you should be able to leave contact information on file, should the need ever arise when it is in your interests to be contacted.  Under this less effective but more voluntary system, it would then become your responsibility to update that information with your various past addresses and/or places of employment over the years, any time you relocated or changed jobs.  This practice, which I’m guessing is at least partially in place with many organizations already, would be an additional chore on top of all the other chores you’d have when you move as well as another data entry/filing task for someone in the HR department; but it’s better than nothing.  A national data base is the best solution, in my opinion, but I do recognize the privacy issues which then arise, thus requiring tough security to make sure this kind of personal information is carefully guarded and regulated.  Between newly accepted health/pandemic needs for contact tracing, residence/employment tracing wouldn’t be that much of a stretch. 

It’s clear that achieving the needed reforms unleashed by the results of Sterigenics ignoring the EPA’s recommendation that EtO should not be released in a densely populated area is far from finished.  The progress we’ve made so far, however, is largely due to the efforts of Stop Sterigenics, a group which educated itself on the issues, ignored conventional wisdom, and took on powerful opposition forces in an epic David versus Goliath confrontation.  That David won this round needs to be celebrated and called to everyone’s attention.  Thank you so much, Stop Sterigenics, and congratulations again on DuPage County’s recognition of your selfless work on our behalf!  But as illustrated by the South past-employee Notification Project, David is going to need lots more volunteers to pick up their slingshots and sally forth against corporate Goliaths, foes armed with expensive legal teams and political influence.  Combatting multi-national corporations, governmental bureaucracy, and general indifference, Stop Sterigenics has shown us all the way forward, and it is up to all of us to help finish that work.

For a complete timeline and documentation on how the village of Willowbrook has kept track of the Sterigenics issues, see this link.  For more on improving public schools, you can check out my eBook, excerpts of which can read here.

Sterigenics: Battles Won—War Ongoing, Part 3

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this Sterigenics saga, we reviewed how several former employees of Hinsdale South High School—inspired and helped by Stop Sterigenics (the community group which was recently recognized for its good works)—came to begin a Notification Project so that other former employees might learn of the dangers they had been exposed to while working at South.  From 1984 to 2019, ethylene oxide (EtO a known carcinogen) had been released into the atmosphere by the Sterigenics corporation via two medical sterilization plants near the high school which led to many illnesses and deaths.  Neither the Hinsdale Township High School District 86 school board (which had hired the teachers to work in this polluted building) nor the teachers’ union (the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association or HHSTA, supposed guardian of teachers’ well-being) had been willing to do the job, despite the obvious responsibility they had to these past employees and repeated requests for them to do so.  Although some attention had been drawn to the issue via meetings, essays, an on-line petition, and an excellent report on CBS This Morning, the Notification Project members believed that to ensure as many former employees as possible found out about the harm which working in South may have caused, a personal contact needed to be made.   

This was a daunting task for a bunch of individuals without access to official records.  Hundreds of people who had worked at South since 1984, but most had scattered all over the state and country during the many years after they’d left South.  How could a list of who they all were even be generated, not to mention the logistics of finding and contacting them?  There were a few informal on-line groups, but there were also hundreds who had lost contact with the Hinsdale South community many years ago who might still be completely unaware that working at South had been a health risk.  With no road map to follow on how to get this done, the Notification Project improvised and created its own system.

Fortunately, for many years, the school had supplied everybody with an employee phone/address book near the beginning of each year.  We knew the information in the books was way out of date, but at least we could get the names of just about everybody who had worked in the building.  This was important since some “behind-the-scenes” people weren’t included in the other main source of names (South’s yearbooks) because they had been employed by various sub-contractors (like the cafeteria service and the night cleaning crew). Although most people had pitched the address books over the years, a few had saved at least some of them.  So the first task was to put out word that there was a need for these books, beginning with the 1984 edition.  And in a couple of weeks, most of them had been gathered in one place.  With them, it was possible to generate a master list of almost everybody who had worked at South over the 34-year span. 

After much squinting and cross-referencing over the extremely tiny type (at least it was to some aged eyes), the final tally of all those who had worked at South from 1984-2019 came out to roughly 1,000 people.  That included teachers, support staff, administrators, and others employed by sub-contractors. Then came organizing the overall task into more specific steps and compiling the on-line resources necessary to explain what had happened to those for whom this news might be a bolt out of the blue.  Most important was finding volunteers who would help with what still seemed an overwhelming task.

And that leads to one of the most rewarding aspects of this whole process:  How past employees of South came through to make the Notification Project work.  In the middle of a pandemic, these friends took the time to take on something others who had more responsibility to address had ignored.  It can’t be overstated how indebted I am to those who gave of themselves so generously to make sure everybody at risk knew what had happened and what their options going forward were.  We truly appreciate your selfless efforts Kathy, Nancy, Susan, Cheryl, Brett, Linda, Cherie, George, Mary, Maribeth, Bob, Rose, Carol, Marge, Jeanne, Mike, Anne, Kris, Barb, Sue, and Kerri (to name a few, with apologies to those my poor memory may have overlooked).  And then there were four who went even further above and beyond, devoting hours and hours to the project’s success and who merit their own special category of gratitude:  Peg, Judy, Candy, and Sharon made herculean efforts to get everyone notified and this project succeeded in large part because of them.  In our divisive, toilet-paper-hoarding times, it is truly inspiring that this group would come together motivated solely to do good for others.  “Thanks” doesn’t even begin to express the depth of appreciation I have for all that you did.

The notification portion then ensued with steady, pain-staking progress:  Organizing the missing people into smaller groupings, finding “Division Heads” who would assume responsibility for notifying specific categories of employees, creating a letter which explained what had happened and what recourse victims had, disbursing copies of that letter electronically, obtaining hundreds of copies of the letter to send via mail to those for whom we didn’t have a personal or digital contact, buying stamps and envelopes to mail those letters, using various on-line resources to find people for whom we only had a name and an old address, and then of course, making contact (or attempting to make contact at least twice) with 1,000 people.  We figured out who we were looking for, learned about how public records could be used to figure out where they were, and then set out to contact them.

It was a tedious, challenging project, but with the help of those wonderful people listed above, we were able to contact over 86% of those who had worked at South from 1984-2019.  For most of those we reached, the notification served as a heads up on what to watch for or “medical monitoring” (as we came to learn) after EtO exposure. But at least 20 of the people contacted had been negatively impacted by Sterigenics and were unaware of the source of their issues until hearing from the Notification Project.  Most of them are now members of the personal injury group of over 700 who have filed lawsuits against Sterigenics. 

It’s important for everyone to understand that this, like Stop Sterigenics, was a grassroots collection of concerned people who had little expertise in any of this, but cared enough to get involved.  Just as Stop Sterigenics tackled a tough problem, the Notification Project folks made the decision to take on a needed task no one else was willing to do and about which it would have been easy to rationalize as un-doable.  Both District 86 and the HHSTA had much greater access to resources and necessary records to notify those who had been a part of those organizations for decades, but simply would not, despite specifically being asked to do so.  (Yes, I know I’ve mentioned the school board and HHSTA’s irresponsible lack of action before, but I’ve had a difficult time accepting that these bodies—both of which I had been a part for 25 years—could treat past employees with such callous indifference.)

Regardless of those organizations’ failings, the Notification Program was a success, and many more past South employees learned the truth than would have otherwise.  So, similar to (if not on the scale of) the positive impact of Stop Sterigenics, those wonderful souls listed above made a difference.  However, after the figurative pats on the back for those two wins have been handed out, much still needs to be done when it comes to EtO release in populated areas for these happy endings to ring out even more resoundingly.  In our final installment, we’ll review that “To-Do” list.

For a complete timeline and documentation on how the village of Willowbrook has kept track of the Sterigenics issues, see this link.  For more on improving public schools, you can check out my eBook, excerpts of which can be read here.

Sterigenics: Battles Won—War Ongoing, Part 2

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Last time, we reviewed the situation which created the need for former employees of Hinsdale South High School (among thousands of others) to be informed of the dangers to which they had been exposed beginning in 1984 and lasting until September 2019, over thirty-four years later:  Medical instrument sterilization plants located in Willowbrook, less than a mile from South, had been releasing a carcinogenic gas, ethylene oxide (EtO), into the atmosphere.  Sterigenics, the corporation which owned the plants and leased the space in Willowbrook, had been warned of the possible health risks before the plants opened, but proceeded anyway.  Studies had proved the warnings prescient as the Willowbrook area became a hot spot for breast cancer and lymphomas (blood cancers), with an increase in premature births and miscarriages as well—all negative outcomes associated with EtO exposure.  Led by a community organization named Stop Sterigenics, local residents and government officials got the Willowbrook plants permanently closed, eliminating the immediate threat.  But many of those who had been exposed, especially those who worked near the plants but had left the area years before, were unaware of what had happened, how their health might be at risk, or that legal recourse against Sterigenics was ongoing and available.

As a pair of retired Hinsdale South teachers who had been affected by EtO, my wife (at South from 1982-2002) and I (1987-2012) joined an effort to get past employees of South notified about what had happened.  All teachers at South had been at least vaguely aware of the unusual incidence of breast cancer which had appeared consistently throughout the building over the years, but with many retired staff members having relocated, their learning about Sterigenics’s culpability in their health issues would depend entirely on how well they kept up with local Willowbrook issues.  That is, of course, unless someone reached out to provide them with the pertinent information.

It seemed obvious to us that the school district would want to make sure its past employees knew of what had transpired since District 86 had provided and maintained the buildings in which the EtO exposure had taken place.  Obviously, no one associated with District 86 had known what had been going on until 2018 when the EPA study was released, but given that the district now knew what working in its buildings had done to its past employees, we assumed current district officials would want to do the right thing by letting everybody know what had happened.  So a campaign to lobby the school board to instruct its administrators to notify past employees of their EtO exposure began in the summer and fall of 2019:  Emails, personal contacts, and presentations at school board meetings (at 07.15 of this video, for example) ensued. 

By late fall, it became apparent just how far the school board would go:  A page on the district’s website gave some background as well as providing a sign-up sheet for “regular” updates (as of March 2021, not a single update has actually been sent—I signed up immediately after the site came online and have yet to get anything).  Unfortunately, you can’t see what’s on a web page unless you know to seek it out, so it offered little help in informing relocated past employees about their risks.  Additionally, after continued gentle pressure, the district sent a letter to past employees who were members of two honorary District 86 groups:  teachers who had worked in district for 25 years or more and support-staff members who had worked at least 15 years in the building.  By our calculations, this “notification” (which, to this retired English teacher, was both lacking in needed detail and confusing in its message), reached at best, 10-15% of the total of past employees impacted by Sterigenics.  The response was inadequate, to say the least.

So, we then contacted the employees’ union to which virtually every retired teacher had once belonged, the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association (HHSTA).  Keep in mind that some of us had served in HHSTA leadership positions for much of our teaching careers:  I, for example, had been vice president, newsletter editor, contract negotiator (with two stints as chief spokesperson for the teachers), grievance chair, and building/local president during my 25 years at South.  In other words, many retired teachers had worked diligently to support the organization which had represented teacher interests over the years, helping to achieve many of the benefits and positive working conditions which current teachers now enjoy.  But, after a week of back and forth, the HHSTA decided it would not allow me to speak at any of its regular meetings, that it would not be “appropriate.”  That was the only explanation I have ever received:  “not appropriate.”  I can only speculate as to why it wouldn’t have been appropriate for me to explain to the HHSTA leadership about our efforts to get past HHSTA members (among others) notified of a significant health risk and to seek HHSTA support for those actions.  Since speculations are of little use here, I can only state the facts:  The HHSTA would not let me speak at its meetings about Sterigenics and EtO.  

Without a doubt, it is disappointing to have the organization to which so many retired teachers devoted significant time and effort during their careers ignore the health threats those same past members faced.  I have attended at least five memorial services in the last ten years for colleagues who died much too soon, from illnesses which can be traced to working at Hinsdale South and Sterigenics, to say nothing of all the suffering illnesses caused by EtO exposure have inflicted on my family, friends, and colleagues.  For the organization entrusted with advocating for and guarding the health and rights of its members to refuse to do anything to help notify past members of a potentially lethal risk is shocking and reprehensible to me.  But that’s what happened; the HHSTA leadership would not allow a past president come to speak at one of its meetings.  Rather than dwell on this moral failing and attack those responsible for this gross negligence and abdication of responsibility, I can only state that it saddens me that the HHSTA would turn its back on those who had labored on its behalf over the years.

So, with minimal district support and absolutely nothing from the employee union tasked with protecting its members, we moved on to more public pressure.  Essays were posted and meetings were attended, but those didn’t have much, if any, effect.  One bright spot during this discouraging time was a Stop Sterigenics founder and ex-student of mine, Urszula Tanouye, who helped keep the story in the news and launched an on-line petition asking the school board to finish its notification responsibilities which garnered over 800 signatures.  I will be forever indebted to Urszula for all she did for us.  (On a completely unrelated note, Ms. Tanouye is currently running to be on a local school board.  It’s not a school district where I live, but she would be a great board member, in my humble estimation.)  But nothing we did moved the school board or the HHSTA.  Privately, some would concede that our case was just and provide moral support, off the record, of course; but time was passing by (late November, 2019) and we still hadn’t been able to motivate those with the most direct responsibility to act in the interests of those who had spent decades working at South.

Just before New Year’s, our notification campaign got a huge lift: CBS This Morning did an amazing report about Sterigenics, featuring five past employees of District 86 (who had learned of the tie between their illnesses and EtO only recently).  These colleagues (Peg, Marge, Rose, Jeanne, and Carol) presented a devastating case against Sterigenics, and CBS did a phenomenal job narrating the story.  You could not ask for a better summation of exactly what the problem is and the need for more publicity/notification for those potentially affected.  (Then, for good measure, Jeanne and Carol presided over a press conference the day after the story broke, again clearly, calmly, and brilliantly laying out just what had happened for all to hear.)  I highly recommend that you check out the five-minute CBS piece.  Thank you CBS and reporter Anna Werner, but especially Peg, Jeanne, Marge, Carol, and Rose—all of whom shared personal details about their health in order to help others.

There could be little doubt that, after all this publicity, that the word had gotten out, at least somewhat.  But we knew it wasn’t enough, that hundreds of our past colleagues might never hear of their risks if we left it here.  Time was passing fast, and this flu-virus thing we’d been hearing about since January was starting to shut down the world.  Since the school district and teachers’ union had failed in their responsibilities to past employees and we knew many of our colleagues and friends had not learned about the threat to their health through our publicity efforts, in late February, this group of retired teachers and support staff members came to the decision that nothing further would get done unless they did the job themselves.  And so the Hinsdale South Past-Employee Notification Project began. That story comes next.

For a complete timeline and documentation on how the village of Willowbrook has kept track of the Sterigenics issues, see this link.  For more on improving public schools, you can check out my eBook, excerpts of which can be read here.

Sterigenics: Battles Won—War Ongoing, Part 1

On February 23 at a DuPage County Board meeting,  the community group Stop Sterigenics was recognized with a proclamation honoring the organization’s service to county residents.  Stop Sterigenics has made vital contributions both to local residents as well as people throughout the country, and continues to make its influence felt.  So now feels like a good time to remind everyone of Stop Sterigenics’s historic impact.  We also can use this much-deserved acknowledgement to remind ourselves that there is still much we all need to do to honor and advance the work Stop Sterigenics has begun, using the example of an offshoot of Stop Sterigenics’s success which also has more than just local applications.

For those of you who don’t know the history:  In a letter dated July 6, 1984 (a copy of the original can be seen here), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned Griffith Laboratories that its planned medical-instrument sterilizing plant in Willowbrook, Illinois, which would release ethylene oxide gas into the environment, posed health risks to the surrounding communities.  The company went ahead and opened anyway.  Over thirty-four years later on February 18, 2019, Griffith Labs—now a multi-national, multi-billion-dollar conglomerate whose corporate headquarters is in Oakbrook and is named Sterigenics—was forced to close those Willowbrook plants as health studies showed significant increases in cancer (especially breast cancer and lymphomas), miscarriages, and premature births for those who lived and worked in proximity to the plants.

My wife and I were impacted by the entire range of EtO issues, as you can read about here.  We did not live near the plants, but had spent over two decades each teaching at Hinsdale South High School, less than a mile from the pollution’s source, and been subjected to EtO for hours every day when we went to work.  In an irony only a retired literature teacher could appreciate, I had gone to school early almost every day in order to workout in the exercise area in South’s basement; EtO is heavier than air and tends to accumulate in low areas, so I probably got an extra heavy dose every day I thought I was doing something good for my health.  To add to this irony lesson, my wife was a physical education/health teacher, and was often outside, the better to encourage fitness, thus making her more vulnerable to the air-borne gas.  Fortunately, we both have coped with our illnesses (her breast cancer was treated in 2002-03 and my chronic lymphocytic leukemia was diagnosed in 2019) relatively well.  But just as we were dealing with the repercussions of my diagnosis, we learned that both our conditions as well as the fertility/birth problems we’d endured over the years had a common source—Sterigenics.  Fortunately, by the time we had pieced together what had occurred, a grass-roots community movement was already doing battle on everyone’s behalf—Stop Sterigenics.

When a comprehensive health report became available in 2018 which showed just how much illness could be related to Sterigenics emissions, community members organized to form what became Stop Sterigenics.  These heroes lobbied local, state, and national government agencies to eliminate the health risks of the two Sterigenics plants in Willowbrook, succeeding in the temporary closing referenced above, which became permanent in September 2019, when Sterigenics fled Willowbrook, citing an “unstable legislative regulatory landscape ” as the reason for the permanent closure, when anyone with the slightest knowledge of what happened knew the truth:  Thanks to Stop Sterigenics, a deadly pollution source was cast out of the area, with its corporate sponsor slinking away, leaving hundreds of personal injury lawsuits in its wake.  We need look no further than Sterigenics’ own actions to understand the company was both negligent and willful in its pollution.  The shut-down in Willowbrook, however, can only be viewed as single victory in a long war which will continue for many years.  Sterigenics has so far not admitted to any wrong-doing nor conceded that its release of EtO caused harm to those who lived and worked nearby.  And as lawsuits wend their way through the courts, there are still many places where EtO is still released in the US, to say nothing of plans for more throughout the world.  Ethylene oxide continues to be a problem, and has only worsened recently.

But Stop Sterigenics did succeed in Willowbrook and has helped to spread word of the dangers these plants still pose to unsuspecting millions.  It is a source of pride to this retired teacher that many graduates of Hinsdale South High School have been critical in both the formation and the work of Stop Sterigenics.  Not only have these stalwarts ended the threat to the Willowbrook area, but they have committed to ridding the world of this dangerous pollutant.  This steady progress has been interrupted due to the pandemic, however, as medical sterilization plants have sought exemptions from stricter regulations in order to provide personal protection equipment (PPE) during the covid crisis.  So now, as we finally start to see some progress in dealing with the five-alarm emergency that has been the pandemic (and for which we even now have to maintain strict vigilance and keep wearing masks, dammit!), we should recognize that we still have much to do when it comes to the poison Sterigenics and other companies are still spewing into our air, and stay resolute in our resolve to deal with the repercussions of this many-decades-long degradation of our environment and health. 

One issue which has been of particular interest to me can also offer us an example of the challenges still present despite the successes associated with shutting down Sterigenics, Willowbrook.  With the plants now defunct and with no chance of their ever returning (to Willowbrook only, sorry to say), many might see this localized problem as solved, put to bed, done.  Unfortunately, when a problem which has been festering for decades finally comes to light, making sure that everyone who may have been impacted by that problem knows what happened becomes a problem for which we don’t currently have many good solutions.  How do we notify all the people exposed to the damaging EtO who no longer live in the area?  Might there be families who lost a loved one due to an illness years ago caused by Sterigenics’s emissions, who have no idea the illness was caused by EtO or that they have legal rights to hold Sterigenics to account?  Just because Sterigenics is no longer spewing its toxins in Willowbrook doesn’t mean that there aren’t still people totally ignorant of the fact that their breast cancer, lymphoma, and/or miscarriage can be traced back to the EtO put into the air where they used to live or work.

So in our next installment, we’ll review the lessons learned from on one small piece of the notification problem, which will better illustrate just what I’m talking about.  Alarmed by the damage Sterigenics had inflicted and inspired by Stop Sterigenics, a group of past Hinsdale South employees began actions to ensure all those who’d worked there over the years had the facts about what had happened.  Both infuriating and heartening, this story has much to teach us. For a complete timeline and documentation on how the village of Willowbrook has kept track of the Sterigenics issues, see this link.  For more on improving public schools, you can check out my eBook, excerpts of which can read here.

My 2020 Soundtrack

As we usher in the new year with the hope it won’t be as bad as 2020, it’s hard to process the last 365 days, short of self-administered amnesia.  How do we come to grips with that which was 2020?  For me, the go-to way of assimilating events is to associate them with music, to put together a soundtrack which helps me to cope.  Usually, an entire year wouldn’t generate this need, but as we all know, 2020 was anything but a typical year.  The only requirement I have for my song choices is that they have some combination of up tempo, complexity, and melody thus making them suitable to use for workouts, household chores, walking the dog, or any other relatively monotonous but useful/necessary task.  With that preface and for what it’s worth (Buffalo Springfield, clearly a song which worked very well as a summation of the late ‘60s, if you’re old enough to remember that time), here’s my annotated soundtrack for 2020.

Negativity was the hallmark of the year; just about everything that happened was bad:  Political discourse, the environment, race relations, pandemics, and human interaction (lack thereof) were just a few of the issues which skewed poorly this year.  In terms of an overall theme song for the year, then, you can’t encapsulate 2020 much better than Filter’s “The Only Way Is the Wrong Way”.  No matter what we did, nothing seemed to work out.  The song’s plaintive vocals and minor key relentlessly crush you, but it’s hard to stop listening, just as 2020 kept the horror coming, month after month in ever-more compelling, if depressing ways. 

The most poignant moment of the year for me was my daughter’s college graduation in May.  The live ceremony was cancelled, depriving the ’20 graduates of that boring, pain of a rite which somehow metamorphizes into a wonderful life event as we age; my daughter and her classmates didn’t get the opportunity for that memory.  Will they remember what did occur in the same wistful way most of us recall that milestone date?  My wife and I did travel to Augustana to be with her on the “big” day, one normally filled with hope, idealism, and interminable speeches.  She dutifully put on her cap and gown; while we sat in her college-town house (small, with most of the furniture already moved out, leaving only a slight mildew aroma), watched the graduates’ names scroll by on her small TV screen, cheered when we saw hers, and then wandered around the mostly empty campus to photograph her spraying a bottle of Champaign in front of one the college’s halls.  We did our best to be jovial and celebratory, but we couldn’t escape the somber aura which coated everything.  The most we could do was to keep our head above water (Men without Hats).  My younger daughter (in a different college) has made it through the first semester of her sophomore year with the same mix of hope and dread.  We all believe that schooling will be better in 2021, but we also understand how much we’ve lost.

2020 wore everybody down in its necessary social distancing.  From Netflix to sourdough bread, we were stuck inside and alone with much more down time than we ever had before.  Relationships frayed and depression soared without our usual diversions, or even being able to hang out with anyone in a public place.  That wonderful, cozy nest we had created as our home slowly deteriorated to the point where we wanted to be anywhere else but here (Simple Plan).  No matter how much each individual tried to act as if “It’s gliding for me” (Plastic Bertrand’s “Ca Plane pour Moi”), even in French, such manic pretense came across as inane gibberish.  And weirdest of all, as you stared at the same four walls day after day, eventually your own home became somewhere strange (Mirrors).

And the pandemic played on—my own petty annoyances with how the year went pale to less than nothing when compared to the brutal time health care professionals had.  How many times did they tell us to wear masks, socially distance, wash our hands, and stay away from any events with significant numbers of people; only to have to exhaust themselves while risking their lives again and again to deal with the foolish choices made by way too many Americans.  Please, do as they say because we cannot keep expecting to get blood from a stone (Hooters).

Politicians in general and our orange dictator wannabe specifically took up way too much air space and wasted way too many opportunities.  There seems to be little question that the faux-Mussolini doughboy could easily be held responsible for tens of thousands of deaths since March, from down-playing the covid threat to numerous super-spreader events at his rallies and the White House.  He managed to politicize every aspect of pandemic behavior, leading to millions putting themselves at risk because he advocated “opening” states up, hyped spurious medical cures, spurned mask use, and droned on endlessly about how we were turning the corner—which still hasn’t happened.  For all that and more, the only way I can avoid hurling things at the TV any time he comes on is to remember Lily Allen’s immortal song,  “F**k You,” here in an extended remix version, making the chorus even bouncier.  (And keep in mind that Lily uses no asteriks when she’s singing that chorus over and over.)

Race relations?  Well, at least we white people momentarily got off our asses to…what, walk around earnestly?  All sincere intentions and resolute affirmations aside, little has or will be achieved while all the underlying circumstances which have created this chasm between the haves and the have nots (from public education equity to career options to increasing minimum wages to food/pollution/health dead zones to economic opportunities to voter suppression laws to…) remain unchanged.  Will our society do anything, make anything better?  Until we do, I can only imagine how bad things are if you are a young, poor, black man in our society.  Yeah, pretty much all I’d want to say to everybody is, “Sa-My-D!”  (Hedegaard & Matt Hawk).

And on and on the list goes:  From floods to wild fires to temperature extremes to tornados, “Hello Hurricane!” (Switchfoot) is about all we’ve come up with as a way to deal with environmental degradation, as we watch our biodiversity fade to grey (Visage).  Societal divisions continue to be a road to nowhere (Talking Heads), with algorithms and AI telling us every day that we’re only just as happy as everyone else seems to think we are (Jimmy Eat World, “The World You Love”).  It’s hard to be optimistic about our future; everything’s pretty dim (Dada) and so far the best-sounding escape plan is that we could run (Beth Ditto).

Odds are (Barenaked Ladies), though, that most of us will have a better 2021, at least by comparison.  Throughout 2021 and for the foreseeable future, we’ll have a nice man as our president who has empathy out the wazoo.  Yes, it’s hard to believe this elderly guy who’s been around forever when he tells us of a better future and promises, “I’ll take you there” (Frankie Knuckles & Jamie Principle), but it sure sounds good to me.  Here’s to a 2021 which doesn’t seem like it’s the end of the world as we know it (R.E.M.), but lets us believe that 2020’s end is a new start (Marsheaux), and helps us please escort the orange plague off our escalator of life (Robert Hazard).  But no matter how we deal with our brief time on this fragile planet, never forget that the tune ends too soon for us all (“Life’s a Long Song,” Jethro Tull). 

My entire 2020 Soundtrack can be accessed starting here.  And if you’d like to read my ideas on improving public education based on my teaching career, you can access excerpts of my e-book, here.  Happy New Year!

Prioritize Teachers

Every day scientists strain to learn more about how this horrible virus operates, which of course, leads to an evolution in our understanding of what risks we frail humans face.  One recent revelation (at least tentatively) is that public education, especially elementary schools, pose much less risk to children than we originally thought.  Kids catch the virus less readily, have fewer extreme reactions, and don’t pass it on to other people to the degree adults do.  Of course there are many exceptions, unfortunately, but compared to other populations, children under 10 seem okay with in-person school, certainly better than adults do with restaurants, bars, or gyms.  The problem, however, is that the other school population necessary for education to work—teachers and support staff—are at much greater risk for serious corona-virus effects when in-person school takes place.  Because of this difference and how important it is to get public education up and running again, teachers should be a top priority to receive vaccines as they become ready.

No one would argue that health workers and elderly retirement community members should be the first to get vaccinated, but once those populations have received their doses, educational staffs should be given serious consideration and deference (along with other essential workers like delivery people, sanitation personnel, grocery store employees, and anyone who performs a public service which benefits our communities).  So far, at least from what I’ve been able to discern, few outside of teachers themselves have been saying much about teachers as a top priority.  Yet, there are significant reasons to support this position.

First and foremost, our kids are falling behind in their education.  Very little matters more to our society’s functioning than its citizens having a first-rate education.  The proud history of America has proven the positive impacts of a literate populace.  From productivity, political, social, fiscal, and civics points of view; we all benefit from the fruits of our public education trees.  So far, though, on-line education has not been able to come even close to achieving what in-person school can do.  From academic achievement to social adjustment, kids are suffering from not being able to go to school, with under-privileged children disproportionately feeling the pain.  And even after we are able to reopen schools normally during the next year (we hope), the deficit the past year will have caused could harm our society for many years.  I don’t know what the depressing formula for the cumulative effect of all those days missed will be, but there can be little doubt that our recovery will take longer for each and every day we can’t send out kids to school.

There’s also the economic impact of not being able to entrust children to public schools for a significant portion of every work day.  With schools fully opened, parents would be able to return to work more easily.  One of the key negative impacts of the pandemic has been on working mothers, many of whom have had to drop out of the work force in order to take care of their kids.  Yes, many men have also been affected, but the percentage of dads leaving the work force is much less compared to moms—men are still out-earning women in general, and our society still sees females as the nurturers and males as the hunter/gatherers.  Regardless of whose employment opportunities have been more hurt by not having schools open five days a week, parents would be freer to return to paying jobs if they didn’t have to wonder whether or not their children’s schools would be in-person or remote.

Lastly, we need to end the battle between teachers and the communities they serve as both students and parents push harder and harder for the return of in-person school (see this article, this one, this one, and this one for a sampling of protests throughout the country).  Everybody understands that learning is declining, to say nothing of the lost extra-curricular opportunities and economic burdens placed on parents.  But coronavirus has killed over 300,000 already, with additional thousands who seem destined to die each day for the next several months.  Teachers (of whom I was one for 33 years until retirement in 2012; so no, I wouldn’t be one of those targeted to get the vaccine early, I’m afraid) have not only had the impossible task of adapting everything they’d done in the classroom for years to video classes in a matter of days, but they are now getting heat for being reluctant to return to their classrooms despite the health risks.  Just because the students are not as imperiled by the virus as adults doesn’t mean that teachers won’t die if they are forced back to school without adequate protection.

That’s not to denigrate those other groups lining up with legitimate reasons for being vaccine priorities:  All those previously referenced folks and any other of a myriad of those who cannot do their jobs remotely should receive their shots as soon as possible, long before all those workers who have been inconvenienced by having to work at home, but have adapted modestly well to staying away from their offices.  But when analyzing who is essential and needs to be vaccinated as soon as possible, we have to understand that even though remote school is taking place, its quality has been significantly lacking in many ways and that its impact on working families has been devastating.  Teachers and other educational support staff can’t be overlooked as we struggle to prioritize those most important to getting our society functioning again when we are figuring out the sequence for rationed vaccines.  Vaccinating teachers will provide a huge societal benefit and enable us to get educators back in their classrooms as soon as we can.

For more on how public schools can be improved, you can check out my e-book, excerpts of which can be seen here.

Coronavirus, In-Person School, and Teacher Unions

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Let’s get the goals out of the way right up front:  1. Everybody wants public schools to be open to everyone for regular school hours as soon as possible; and 2. Nobody wants going to school to be unsafe for anyone.  Okay?   Good.

Making those objectives a reality won’t be easy given how fragmented the various approaches, plans, and procedures now floating around thousands of school districts throughout the country are; you can find published plans for districts in the same geographic area that bear little resemblance to each other.  Many have yet to get specific about the ways they will adjust their classrooms to accommodate needed distancing, how regular testing with immediate results will be accomplished, or the system they will use which will provide for a continuum of schedules and practices varying as conditions change and we understand better how this virus behaves.  Every district should spell out just what the best ways are to prevent infection, to root out any who are infected, and to protect everybody from infecting anybody else in concrete, replicable terms.  Plus, don’t forget that all these procedures might have to be modified as we learn more.  The obstacle to achieving this so far, of course, is the complete failure of the Trump administration to do its job, which means we must find others to take on the responsibility of leading in our time of crisis.

Back in the day (and let us all hope, beginning again in the aftermath of the November 3rd presidential election), we could count on all the facts and procedures necessary for situations like this to be provided in excruciating detail from the federal government:  The CDC would lead, with an alphabet soup of other bureaucratic agencies supporting and publicizing best scientific practices, headed up by our propagandist-in-chief, the president.  But with 64% of America distrusting anything our Cheeto-dusted Pinocchio dishes up—You mean we shouldn’t inject ourselves with bleach?—it’s become obvious that we need others to step forward to show how to navigate this pandemic.  No, as we saw recently, the Education Secretary, Betsy SoLost, hasn’t a clue either.

Many governors have tried to lead, but fifty different strategies are hardly an organized way to go, and that’s leaving out how politics has become a factor as evidenced by Georgia’s governor suing the mayor of Atlanta over masking.  And as we all recall from our own educations, having the states cooperate on this particular group project will mirror how all those groups we endured in school ended up—a couple of nerdy, motivated states will do the majority of the work, while slacker states try to ride in on their coattails, hefting very little of the drudgery of things like social distancing and masking.  The problem with this method when you’ve been assigned coronavirus as your project is that unless each and every participant pulls his/her weight, those now-heavily-infected goof-off group members (Can you say, “Florida”?) will proceed to infect all the over-achieving, low-rate states as interstate travel continues.

Yeah, it’s looking pretty grim as we get closer to schools’ first days, with the Idiot-in-Chief insisting that he’ll withhold funding from any district that doesn’t open with the traditional schedule in place, with future field trips to the hospital as an exciting (if your kids survive) diversion.  And just when you thought it couldn’t get any more confusing, the CDC releases “revised” guidelines for opening schools, which are much more biased in favor of going ahead with in-person contact, unlike its previous iteration which had earned the ire of that clown in the Oval Office for being “too tough.”  Because of all this chaos and uncertainty, how to go about something as complicated as trying to have in-person class has become (through their refusal to accept responsibility and the incompetence of those who should be leading) an individual decision each school district has to figure out on its own.

As a result of that and since they have as much at stake as anyone else caught up in this mess, teachers need to assert themselves into this discussion forcefully as equal partners in how this ultimately gets resolved.  If teachers are not convinced returning to in-person school is safe, schools should not open with in-person classes.  Fortunately for many teachers, the methodology for making this all happen is already in place:  Teacher Unions.

Naturally, many—especially school administrators and boards—will resist this idea, but I don’t believe they really have a choice, so let’s get to the legal basis for my proposal first:  Based on various statutes in place throughout the country, teacher unions can influence how this school year proceeds because of collective bargaining laws enacted by individual states which regulate how public employees (primarily firefighters, police officers, and teachers) interact with their governmental bosses.  In Illinois, for example (with which I am most familiar since it’s the state in which my teaching career took place), we have the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act (5 ILCS 315/) which in the second paragraph of its second section states its purpose, which is to “regulate labor relations between public employers and employees, including the designation of employee representatives, negotiation of wages, hours and other conditions of employment, and resolution of disputes arising under collective bargaining agreements.”

You should take note of that vague but vital phrase right in the middle of all that verbiage on the things that employees have the right to negotiate: “other conditions of employment.”  This catchall means that anything which has an impact on working conditions is the subject of bargaining and inclusion in a mutually agreed upon contract between the teachers (as typically represented by their union) and the community’s representatives (the school board).  And as we have witnessed, coronavirus has had a huge impact on teachers’ working conditions.  In March, there was no time for teacher unions to insist that the radical changes in working conditions be negotiated as public schools had to close down rapidly due to the public health emergency.  We’ve been aware of the problems opening schools this fall presented for several months, however, so one would hope all affected parties would be better prepared this time.  Now is the time for teachers to file a demand to bargain to negotiate contractual language on methodology and criteria to be used in order to ensure safety for the 2020-21 school year, if they haven’t already done so.

It will seem crazy to some that a local teacher union might be able to deal with this crisis better than our governmental agencies, but keep in mind that local unions do have broader affiliations in most cases; and you get to the national level in two quick steps.  I know this because I was active at all levels in my union, the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association (HHSTA), during my 25 years at Hinsdale South High School (I retired in 2012 after 33 years teaching).  The HHSTA is affiliated with the Illinois Education Association (IEA) which is the state branch of the US-wide National Education Association (NEA).  The other major teacher union is the American Federation of Teachers with its Illinois chapter, the IFT, which is affiliated with Chicago public schools, for example.  So when the national organizations put out notices, they move rapidly to thousands of classroom teachers, who can put that information to good use in making sure we have the same standard of safety everywhere.  While I have always been insistent on schools and teachers being treated as unique entities, when it comes to safety measures, we all want to be able to know that the seat belt in the car from Maine works exactly the same as the one you might use in Oregon.  All schools should be equally and fully protected from becoming coronavirus vectors since this damn bug is completely egalitarian in its willingness to infect anyone.  To defeat it, we have to present a unified front.

Following that demand to bargain and as negotiations proceeded, local unions would look to their state organizations for assistance on the best methodology and relevant criteria which could be included in the new agreement.  State unions, the IEA in the HHSTA’s case, would then seek guidelines from the national organization; ultimately, the NEA could have a significant effect on how schools open this fall in many local districts.

Naturally, with the right to insist the district negotiate pandemic protocols comes the responsibility to be as safe as possible; insisting that teachers have an equal say in which health procedures will be used will require that local and national teacher leaders take the initiative and accept a measure of responsibility for the safety of the community’s children.  Um, yeah, that does kind of sound like how teachers operate every day for the entirety of their careers, so this isn’t really all that much of a stretch for teachers—it’s what they do.

Plus, let’s not overlook the primary motive for the teacher unions:  Teachers!  Suddenly, having a bunch of teenagers in five different groups of 25 per class makes you a high-risk, front-line worker.  If anything, given some of the ventilation systems in place in many of our schools, teachers’ risks could be many-multiples higher than most workers for catching the virus.  Yes, nurses are much more at risk and brave as hell, but at least they have been trained about this stuff and have access (um, most of the time?) to supplies of safe-guarding equipment.  Trust me, many of those in front of your kids each day, especially in high schools, have only the most rudimentary knowledge and training on health issues—my English background didn’t really contain much on any pandemics, save the Black Plague’s significance in Romeo and Juliet.

But safe practices could be clearly spelled out through directives from the national organizations who would be compelled to seek out the best science available—leading us right back to the typical governmental sources, except, the unions would be able to use only the scientists’ work, without its having to be run through the corrupting filter of politics.  This whole thing is a convoluted process, I will readily admit, to expect local teacher union leaders to demand bargaining sessions to enact the procedures which should already be in place and which have been generated by federal government agencies, but that twisted route to safety is clearly better than what’s currently going on.

Of course, this approach is far from fail-safe.  For starters, it requires local unions to step up and insist on being included in the task of figuring out what to do, which some may be reluctant to do. Unfortunately, I have a recent personal experience with the problems of a teacher union ignoring a risk to its (past) members:  Last November, I tried to persuade the Hinsdale Township High School District 86  board to alert past employees of an environmental health hazard which has negatively impacted many teachers who worked at Hinsdale South (including my wife and me) due to air pollution which filled Hinsdale South for over 30 years from two Sterigenics plants in Willowbrook.  When I approached the union I had served in many capacities over my teaching career (the HHSTA), seeking their support for a district-wide effort to make sure all past employees of South got notified of their health risks, South HHSTA leaders wouldn’t even let me come to their meeting to discuss the issue, stating it would not be “appropriate” for me to attend their “sanctioned” meeting to lobby the union for help in notifying past union members of something which had already taken the lives of several South teachers.  Such indifference and dereliction of duty in the corona age would certainly undermine making schools safe for anyone—yes, we need to mention again that leadership on this should have come from our federal government, the group most responsible for the mess we’re in.  To help weak locals, the national unions would need to provide clear, straightforward help with their push for participation in decisions which will impact teachers’ health.

This method would also be problematic in states without any collective bargaining laws, but we could hope that the once some standard procedures had been hammered out, every district would leap on board.  That would be more likely once it became clear that national groups were articulating state-of-the-art advice to keep everybody well.

Nor am I trying to ignore/minimize all the work various groups have done to create detailed re-opening plans.  Downers Grove District #99  (Downers South and North High Schools), for one, has published what appears to be a carefully thought out, reasonable plan.  But for every district like that, you will find others with much less detailed plans, which require significant fleshing out in a very short time frame (like this one, which was shared on July 15 from Center Cass #66).  Regardless of how good current plans are, however, in most of them, final decisions are left to school officials.  Even though teachers have participated in creating these plans (many of them union leaders), the ultimate authority to make final decisions rests with school boards and administrators.  In collective bargaining lingo, when your bosses have total say so over your working life, that’s known as being “at will,” not a comfortable place for teachers to be, especially when poor decisions could cost them their lives.

Teachers have a different set of priorities and a huge stake in those decisions, so they should have the power to impact them directly.  Until significant improvements in our ability to treat people infected with COVID-19 and an effective vaccine are available, working in large buildings with hundreds of people puts your health/life at much greater risk than if you did comparable activities remotely.  I don’t know about you, but under those conditions, I would expect to be able to have a say in how to proceed.  In more concrete terms, the details of how and to what degree schools will open should be reduced to an agreement between school boards and teacher unions which both groups then vote to accept or reject.  (And these agreements should all contain, for example, language which would allow teachers in high-risk categories to have totally remote assignments or to opt-out of teaching this school year with no loss of seniority rights, to give one example of how a union negotiator might look out after their members differently from district administrators.)   At the very least, teachers should be able to vote on the plans which have already been created in their district, with the written version (upon approval) becoming a part of the negotiated contract, subject to the grievance procedure (which culminates in binding arbitration when disputes reach impasse) every collective bargaining agreement is required to have.  Without unions sharing in the responsibility for monitoring conditions and insisting on districts strictly following agreed upon standards for in-person classes, it is not difficult to imagine a district’s bending to pressure from distraught, overworked parents to keep schools open, despite conditions being only a “little” worse.  And that kind of lapse or vacillation could lead to deaths—we need a plan which has multiple parties scrutinizing daily data to guarantee no possibility of erring on the side of convenience rather than safety.

Teacher union resistance to in-person schooling is building with several state organizations speaking out about how inadequate some of the back-to-school plans are. In Pennsylvania, New York City, Florida, and Wisconsin (to name a few), teacher unions have begun to agitate or file lawsuits to prevent school districts from recklessly opening before science would dictate.  While I do support this legal confrontation as in the best interests of teachers, I’ve always felt that a more cooperative approach serves everyone better; collective bargaining—while certainly not easy or a panacea for every situation—offers a more reasoned approach, to say nothing about promoting a more unified front on standardizing procedures which protect our communities.

Obviously, teacher unions trying to save public education from stupid politicians is not the best approach to a deadly pandemic, but the alternatives right now are all fraught with self-serving posturing and vague, unscientific assurances.  Unions could ensure that the health conditions locally are the driving force behind any school re-opening plan.  Unions could demand comprehensive testing to keep schools virus free.  Unions could make sure objective criteria, like focusing on the number of cases and positivity rates, would be the basis for all decisions.  And ultimately, unions could—in protecting teachers—protect our kids.  Our current situation is rife with danger, clearly, but the combination of national leadership which has direct access to local stakeholders that unions can provide seems like the best mix available to confront it, patchwork as it may be.

A look at where we are in late July, however—with significant numbers of newly infected week after week, hospitalizations and deaths increasing, shortages of supplies, delays in testing, and a paucity of effective treatments—makes it clear that schools should not be reopening with any in-person contact for at least a few months.  Local unions should use that time to require that the conditions under which union member teachers go back to classrooms with kids are safe, period.  That will necessitate their filing demands to bargain (the aforementioned Illinois Federation of Teachers is advising locals to do just that in a July 20 press release); the alternative of teachers getting sick because of union inaction (to say nothing of students and every other adult working in our schools) is unacceptable, or at least it should be.  Teachers are dedicated to their mission of educating young people, but they shouldn’t have to risk death in order to fulfill it.

For more on how public schools can be improved, you can check out my e-book, excerpts of which can be seen here.

Rules of the Road, Trail, and Sidewalk 101

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Welcome!  We’ve noticed that many of you have joined us in the wonderful world of moving around outside in public areas.  Yes, some of us have been here all along and have always appreciated being out in the air, getting exercise, and walking our dogs, thanks for asking.  Sure, bicycling is a great fitness activity and something else we’re happy to see you’re starting to do.  The only thing is…and this is a delicate subject which I’ll try to tread softly around…you’re driving us crazy with the stupid, rude, unsafe things you do, so would you get your shit together before we start screaming at your stupid ass!…um, I mean, it would be great if you would learn a few, simple rules, please and thank you.  In this age of social distancing coupled with everybody’s trying to keep occupied while under lockdown, we’ve all got to get a few things straight on how this works.  Let’s start out with the basics before we move into newer areas yet to be resolved:

  1. When on roads where there are no sidewalks, pedestrians should always walk/jog/run facing traffic, which is the left side of the road in the U.S. This just seems like common sense which should be obvious to all, but the evidence strongly suggests otherwise.  When there is no sidewalk, you’re sharing the road with everything—other pedestrians, cyclists, cars, lawn service trailers, and delivery trucks, if you’re in a residential neighborhood.  Therefore, being the most vulnerable, slowest moving thing out there, you need to be able to see that which is coming towards you.  With all those other, higher-powered objects on the right side of the road, you can only see them coming towards you when you’re on the left.  Additionally, if all pedestrians keep to the far left, this will also prevent you from ever having to pass within six feet of another pedestrian, unless you’re going around them because you’re moving faster.  If you get nothing else out of this rules list, understand that all pedestrians always stay on the left when there’s no sidewalk.  Don’t believe me?  Then take a look here and here, and oh, you could look here as well as here, and if you’d like an oldie, this one’s from 1997, and guess what?  The answer’s still the same, no matter where you look.  There’s no debating this one, so please stop glaring at me and my dog when you have to cross to the other side of the street because you are on the wrong  Thanks!
  2. On trails, unless otherwise posted, everybody— be you walker, dog walker, runner, or biker—stays to the right, except to pass. It’s really that simple on trails.
  3. Bikers need to give pedestrians some kind of warning when they come up on them rapidly from behind (which would only be on trails, since cyclists always stay to the right, even on roads, and would thus be moving toward pedestrians on roads without sidewalks, remember?). The best signal, I have found, is to call out, “On your left!” as you get in range and move to the left to pass.  Yes, bikers, I know that’s what the bells we all dutifully bought are for, but my experience would suggest that most pedestrians don’t recognize your tinkling as a signal that you’re coming.  You can keep ringing that damn thing all you want, but a majority of pedestrians respond better to a human voice.  Just remember, “Get the hell out of my way, you human excrement!” will not enhance the spirit of courtesy and cooperation we’re going for here.
  4. Related to #3, when you’re walking in groups larger than one, you should not hog the trail nor be oblivious to everyone else. Bikes are moving much faster than you, so you must be ready to make room for them quickly.  Bikers do need to recognize that speed and blind corners do not mesh well and slow down in those kinds of areas, but just because you and four other people finally got your rears out of the house and are thrilled to be with each other does not entitle you to clog the trails and make it difficult for anyone to get around you.
  5. Recognize that most lone pedestrians will have earphones in and will not be able to hear everything as clearly as you might assume. I can’t imagine ever being out for a walk without my music, so I’m very careful to stay as far over (Far left on the road, far right on the trail, remember?) as I can to be out of the way.  Bright colors help, but if you’re going to eliminate one of your two key detection-of-others senses (hearing), you’d better crank up your alertness with the other.  Yes, keep your head on a swivel so you can see what’s around you.  (To which other sense did you think I was referring?  I’ve never had much luck smelling or tasting somebody coming up on me from behind, and yes, I would appreciate a gentle reminder on basic hygiene if you can tell I’m coming up behind you with your nose.)
  6. No, the headphone rules do not apply to cyclists, because they should never, ever shield their hearing in any way. Given how fast bikes can go, they pose way too much of a danger to pedestrians on trails if the rider can’t hear anything.  And given how slow bikes go, cars pose way too much of a danger to bikers on roads if bikers can’t hear them.  Maybe on long, straight trails (like the Illinois/Michigan Canal Trail, maybe) bikers can get away with using ear pods, but I eschew them at all times when on a bike.
  7. Cyclists need more equipment than anybody else, specifically helmets and mirrors (with bells and lights being useful, but not required). Injuries are significantly worse for those without helmets, when they happen, so it’s just common sense again.  And no, your wonderful lessons in hypocrisy don’t make you any safer if you’re out with your helmeted kids, but you aren’t wearing one.  C’mon, Dad, don’t be a loser!  (And by “lose” we mean your physical mobility and/or cognitive ability due to head injury.) A mirror is necessary to keep track of things coming up behind you, especially cars when you’re on the road.
  8. Cyclists should stay off sidewalks; they’re just too narrow to accommodate how much room bikes take up and pedestrians. Woodridge (here in Illinois) deserves lots of praise for having either cycling-friendly wide paths and/or sidewalks along with trails on the same roads in many places.
  9. Cars need to be more aware of pedestrians and cyclists always, but especially now that we have more newcomers out there. Please stop completely at lights when we are crossing; your inching forward is nerve racking.  Keep in mind that as far as I have been able to find, in every confrontation between a car and a pedestrian/cyclist, the pedestrian/cyclist has gotten the worst of it—the stakes are pretty high for us on foot or bike in any collision we have with a car.  Gestures and eye contact make a big difference as well, so use both, and watch pulling into a crossing area while looking to your left in anticipation of making a right turn without checking to see if somebody on foot or bike might be coming from your right.  Texting is dangerous for everybody, but especially pedestrians/cyclists in residential areas by anyone in motion.  Some of those streets can be pretty narrow, so drivers slowing down would also be appreciated.  Yes, you will see me mouthing unpleasant words or gesticulating in vulgar ways should you ignore any of these suggestions—sorry, but your taking risks with my life tends to disrupt my calm, ya know?

Now that our president has led us into what seems like a perpetual pandemic state, we also have to be thinking about the best ways for everybody to stay a safe distance from each other and minimize infection possibilities.  I’m not sure I’ve completely thought through all of the nuances, but it might be helpful for everybody to agree to a few corona adaptations.  To start, you don’t see many masks or gloves on walkers and even fewer on cyclists; I’d suggest we should at least have them readily available (around your neck for masks, for example) so that they can be quickly pulled into place when occasion merits.  Our need for social distancing has led some pedestrian couples to walk on opposite sides of the trail, which puts the biker trying to move by (through?) them in a difficult position:  Do you slow significantly until the walkers both move to the right?  Or do you sail through the gap between them?  What does the cyclist call out in this situation?  “Coming though!”?  That’s probably the best compromise right now, but it does mean that the biker will probably be less than six feet away from both pedestrians.  Who’s going to take charge on this one?  And should we all agree to go clockwise (counter?) on shorter trails, as has been posted at McCollum Park in Downers Grove, so that walkers/joggers never have to pass each other except to go by when moving at a faster pace?  I’d also lobby for cyclists to stay off those kinds of short trails—to do laps at places like McCollum or Oldfield Oaks (in Darien) is ridiculous for bikers:  Way too much pedestrian traffic at McCollum and too many blind/tight/narrow turns at Oldfield Oaks.  And for roads where there are sidewalks on both sides of the street, can we agree to always stay on the left (right?) side in order to minimize traffic interaction?  Given that it’s starting to appear that our current social distancing needs will be with us for quite some time, it does seem that we’ll need some more basic guidelines in order to take advantage of the outdoors with a minimum of risk. #helpusparkdistricts

But all of that last paragraph lists things which are merely suggestions for further discussion.  In contrast, the numbered items are current practices which anyone who ventures outside, regardless of your mode of propulsion, should adopt.  Once again, everybody is welcome to join the rest of us outside, but please respect basic conventions which will keep us all safer and less irritated.  I’ll see you out there…from a distance.

Sterigenics: Preventing Future Notification Problems

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As I’ve written before, I worked at Hinsdale South High School for 25 years, from 1987-2012, which is where I met my wife (who worked there from 1982-2001) and which is where we both were negatively impacted by the ethylene oxide released by the Sterigenics medical instrument sterilization plants in Willowbrook, less than a mile from Hinsdale South which operated from 1984-2019.  In addition, I’ve argued previously about how employers in the affected area near to the Sterigenics plants have a moral responsibility to notify past employees who might have been affected by the carcinogenic gas to which Sterigenics subjected them for decades.  Progress has been slow on that front unfortunately, as I still haven’t been able to get my old employer, Hinsdale Township High School District 86, to notify all of its past employees, despite lobbying them since this past October.

Efforts to get the school board to do the right thing by past employees will continue, but there is an even larger issue which this situation perfectly illustrates:  Humans move with alacrity when their cleverness leads them to something which they believe will make things better; unfortunately, they are much slower to acknowledge how that cleverness leads to negative consequences which can take longer to manifest themselves or do so in subtle ways.  Our immense hubris blinds us from even considering that our latest wonder could have the slightest thing wrong with it.  I would point to just about every significant “advancement” we’ve taken as evidence of this.  By the time we recognize that nothing is perfect, that every heralded advantage we create and market will inevitably be offset by a disadvantage, that advantage has become integral to our lives; we can’t imagine a world without it.  But how those two opposing consequences balance out over long periods of time is an equation that will forever be debated, at least until our irrational faith in human intelligence causes us to destroy the very planet on which we depend.  The Sterigenics pollution crisis is just another brick in the wall of progress vs. problem we have built:  Healers throughout the world benefit from the sterility EtO is able to guarantee for medical instruments, while residents near the plants where the instruments are produced get cancer.  As one of those who got cancer, I can’t pretend to be objective about how this equation will ultimately balance out.  But I can insist that we learn something from it.  And that’s surprisingly easy for us to make happen, in this instance at least.

To wit:  Every employer needs to set up a system for workers which would enable that employer to notify employees after they no longer work there should anything negative (like the long-term cancer-causing pollution to which District 86 employees were exposed) come to light many years after the negative thing’s first occurrence.  In other words, regardless of where I go or how long it has been since working somewhere, my ex-employer should be able to notify me quickly and efficiently should some hazard nobody was aware of at the time come to light.  And this would actually be simple to set up.

Whenever someone leaves a job, the employer should keep contact information on file and maintain it in perpetuity—it certainly wouldn’t take up much room as a spreadsheet on a human resource person’s computer.  Then, should new information which could impact past employees come to light, the old employer could just access its file on past employees and notify them without any fuss.

Without a doubt, past employees regularly move and change positions, so it would be their responsibility to let their old employers know how to reach them, to update their contact information as needed.  An employer’s responsibility would be to send out notifications to the current addresses it had as well as maintaining a file for those addresses.  Employees, then, would need to update their old employers any time they moved.  In the digital age, contact information could be something as simple as an email address, especially since many of us don’t update or change this very often; I’ve had the same Hotmail account for the past thirty years, so under my system, regardless of how many times my geographic position had shifted, District 86 could still contact me as well as my many retired colleagues with a single group email.

This does little to solve the Sterigenics situation since most employers have nothing like this in place.  But given all the issues which can arise long after someone has left a workplace, there’s no reason why every employer in the country shouldn’t be required to maintain a contact list for past employees, with past employees accepting the responsibility for keeping their past employers up-to-date on how to reach them.  Let’s not wait for the next Sterigenics/ethylene oxide crisis to make this happen.

Sterigenics: Ripple Effects Will Continue

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As most of us who have lived and worked in the Willowbrook area know, the Sterigenics medical-instruments sterilization plants located there released ethylene oxide (EtO) into the atmosphere over the last 35+ years (1984-2019).  EtO, as we have also learned, is a well-known carcinogen and causes increases in various cancers for those who breathe it in or absorb it through their skin.  Thanks largely to the grassroots organization, Stop Sterigenics, the Willowbrook plant has now been permanently closed down, and we can all breathe a literal sigh of relief.  But what about that figurative one…?

Given my melodramatic flourishes, clearly I don’t believe this is anywhere near over yet.  Most obviously, there are many companies and plants throughout the country still using EtO and releasing this carcinogen into the air of densely populated areas—Waukegan and Gurnee to name two in Illinois, for example.  And true to its charter, you will find Stop Sterigenics people helping in those battles, to say nothing of the work various individuals are doing at a national level to eliminate this health threat.  But there are other unintended consequences of this pollution which have yet to be adequately addressed, even in the Willowbrook area.  One which hits very close to home for me is the notification of those who were exposed to Sterigenics’s poison, especially to individuals who came into contact with EtO only because of their work.

I won’t belabor this point since I’ve already covered it several times in other essays in relation to my past employer (Hinsdale Township High School District 86 for which I worked at Hinsdale South—three-quarters of a mile from the Sterigenics plants—for 25 years), but there has been very little in the news about any efforts to inform everyone impacted about the potential health consequences from EtO exposure over the course of years.  You can hear about those consequences quite clearly in a CBS This Morning piece, which features five of my old colleagues who bravely explain what ethylene oxide has done to them while advocating for more thorough notification of everyone, to say nothing of trying to get EtO out of populated areas.  There really needs to be a comprehensive solution to notifying everyone rather than individuals trying to lobby their past employers to let other past employees know about the risks.  We also need to come together to fight this pollution, rather than harping at victims:  There have been those who have reacted to the efforts I and my ex-colleagues have taken to complain that we’re not emphasizing notification of ex-students enough.  Of course everyone who has been exposed needs to understand what has happened; I focused on those I thought were least likely to be aware of the dangers due to their having left the area in retirement, often far away from Willowbrook, who had a smaller chance to learn of what was happening in Willowbrook, much less realizing that Hinsdale South was a hot spot for cancer developing.  Then too, individual organizations and businesses have to step up until a broader notification process has been worked out.  I’ve already advocated that Hinsdale 86 (my old district) do much more for past employees, but I’ve come to believe that the district isn’t doing all that much to help current employees—most of whom have also been exposed to years of EtO—cope with what has happened to them, or even provided them with adequate information to understand health risks and legal rights.  The Hinsdale High School Teachers Association (HHSTA), for which I served as president, chief spokesperson, and grievance chair for many years, wouldn’t even allow me to attend one of their meetings to spread the word, telling me it wouldn’t be “appropriate” for me to attend one of their “sanctioned” meetings to discuss Sterigenics.

So, we have a long way to go on notification of those who lived and worked in the Willowbrook area (generally speaking, a radius of six miles from the now-closed plants, according to the latest information) from 1984-2019 who need to know about things like EtO-caused cancers, medical monitoring, legal rights, and support groups.  And when you multiply the Willowbrook area by over 100 other areas where EtO is still being used, you get a sense of how immense this task will be.  This job will take years and significant effort from many, but it needs to be done.  After eliminating EtO from all populated areas, the next key issue is to inform those located close to these cancer hot spots what happened and what they can do about it.

Another area which needs to be considered is the cost of health insurance.  As a teacher contract negotiator for most of my 33-year education career, I understand better than most how important health insurance is to everyone.  And as health care costs have sky-rocketed over the years, more and more of that expense has been shifted to employees in the form of a larger percentage of premium costs.  In District 86, to use an example with which I have experience, we negotiated a fixed dollar amount each year that teachers would contribute to insurance costs based on the district’s experience in previous years.  For subsequent years, we agreed that the district would absorb the first 10% of health insurance increases from year to year, but any additional increases would be shared equally by the district and teachers.  Thus, if the expenses went up 16% over the previous year, teachers would shoulder another 2% of the total costs that year (16% increase minus the board’s agreed upon 10% divided by 2 would come to 2%).  Whatever that 2% increase translated to would be deducted from our checks each month.  (The current teacher contract in District 86 is significantly more expensive for employees than what we negotiated fifteen years ago—the district and employees split the first 8% of increase from year to year, and the teachers shoulder 100% of any increase over 8%. The language on this appears on page 56 of the contract.)

But those increases were affected by the reality that we were working in sick buildings from 1984 on.  In other words, our individual health issues were skewed negatively due to the fact that we were all breathing in ethylene oxide every day at work, which led to the increase in the cancers we’ve previously referenced.  And that caused an increase in insurance premiums for all teachers.  In other words, those whose health was being hurt by the gas were also paying more for the “privilege” of working in a toxic environment.  It would make for a great lesson in irony if it weren’t so tragic.

This is a really tough one to rectify.  Do we go back and try to get the district to pay back whatever percentage of increase was due to Sterigenics?  Should the district sue Sterigenics to recover excess insurance costs?  How would you calculate what that number would be?  I guess all the health records available could be examined to determine which charges were most likely to have been EtO-related, but you can easily see how challenging it would be to come to any sort of consensus on what that figure would be, to say nothing of trying to find the people who merited compensation (see the previous notification challenge for more on that), which doesn’t even begin to deal with the huge battle-ground of who would be supplying the cash for these reimbursements.  Rather than go through all that, I would suggest that current residents and employees in the affected area should receive a reduction or freeze in whatever their insurance contributions and deductibles are for some period of time in the future.  In District 86, for example, the teachers’ union could negotiate more favorable numbers for the duration of their next contract (say, four years). No, that wouldn’t compensate retirees, but at least it would be a sort of acknowledgement that employees and residents had been supplementing the costs of being subjected to toxic gas.  It’s hardly a fair solution, but a reasonable one given the scope and complexity of the problem.

The last ripple of Sterigenics’s legacy, at least for now, has to do with property values.  From what science tells us about EtO, it dissipates and vanishes within 69-140 days once it is released into the atmosphere.  Since Sterigenics has not been operating in Willowbrook for some time now and has lost its lease to reopen, there is really little to fear anymore, at least when it comes to living anywhere in the area where the plants used to be and EtO exposure.  But the reality about reputations is that they can be established instantly yet take an inordinate amount of time to change.  The Willowbrook plants have not been releasing any EtO since they closed in February 2019, almost a year now, which experts tell us means that nobody is currently inhaling any of the gas which Sterigenics released over the years in or around Willowbrook.  But, I would bet that real estate prices in Willowbrook remain depressed compared to surrounding areas, and that it will take years for them to recover.

This is a hard fact to pin down.  Those seeking to relocate to this area probably won’t publicly state they’re trying to avoid neighborhoods close to where the Sterigenics plants were located, but given the publicity the story has gotten, it is possible many will have a general dread of Willowbrook without the more nuanced awareness that any residue from the EtO gas has long since been eliminated, given the February 15 closure—which in late January 2020 is roughly double the longest estimate of how long EtO exists in the environment once it is released.  Long, complicated sentences aside, it’s going to take some time for the Willowbrook real estate market to recover from this black mark on its environmental quality.  I don’t know what else can be done about this except to keep pumping the facts into the system, to make sure everybody is regularly reminded that although this dangerous carcinogen was emitted daily for decades, it no longer poses a threat to anyone new to the area.  That we still don’t know how many more cancer victims will be found from those exposed over the years is still another reason to keep public awareness of the issue at the forefront.  Yes, I recognize the seeming paradox of constantly reminding everybody of the harm EtO can cause while at the same time helping everyone new to the area to understand that EtO is no longer a threat to them.  Nobody said this was going to be a simple or easy path.

And that awareness is necessary for the overriding concern of which Sterigenics should remain a clear example:  Experimenting on the public through the release of any substance when we don’t fully understand health risks cannot be allowed to continue.  From fentanyl, opioids, and thalidomide to ethylene oxide, alar, and DDT; humans have to recognize that there is a down side to everything.  Just because our creativity and intelligence allow us to achieve miraculous feats every day doesn’t mean we don’t have to be on highest alert to safe-guard ourselves against harmful side effects leading to an overall negative effect.  No matter how cost-effective the sterilization of medical instruments has been thanks to EtO, that does not justify the immense harm we now know it has caused.  Other means of processing medical instruments exist, and we should have been more careful about using what was already a known danger in such heavily populated areas.  That’s especially important to keep in mind when we see a letter from the EPA written to Sterigenics in 1984, months before the Willowbrook plants opened, suggesting it wouldn’t be in the best interests of the residents for Sterigenics to be releasing EtO.  We need to reaffirm our commitment as moral human beings that we will not knowingly risk the health of others to increase the profits of corporations.

Unfortunately, we can’t let go of the Sterigenics problem anytime soon, despite everyone’s desire to move on and focus on more interesting topics like what Bernie and Elizabeth are fighting about or just why Meghan and Harry are fleeing to Canada.  At least there are positive ways to keep Sterigenics in the news:  Recognizing the heroes at Stop Sterigenics with as many awards and as much praise as possible is the best way I know to help mitigate the harm EtO release has done to our community.  As 2019 plaudits are announced through various forums, I would nominate Stop Sterigenics (and specifically, one of its driving forces, my ex-student, Urszula Tanouye who has led the notification battle) as champions, both for what they have done, but more importantly, for their continued efforts.  This isn’t over yet, folks.