This Teen Helped Close a Chemical-Leaking Sterilization Plant

High schooler Alexandra Collins cofounded Students Against Ethylene Oxide

By Lydia Lee

March 4, 2021

Alexandra Collins is smiling at the camera, wearing a brown coat and black turtleneck and standing in front of her high school with snow on the ground.

Teen activist Alexandra Collins shows that you don't have to be an expert to have a voice in public health decisions. | Photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz

In August 2018, 14-year-old Alexandra Collins was about to start high school. She was looking forward to playing lacrosse and hanging out with her friends. Then she read in the local paper that Sterigenics, a company near where she lives in Hinsdale, Illinois, had been emitting high levels of ethylene oxide (EtO), a carcinogenic gas used to sterilize medical equipment. According to the EPA, this gas had increased the risk of cancer by approximately nine times the national average in areas near the plant. "I saw the NATA [National Air Toxics Assessment] map of the high-risk areas, and those rings included my school and my home and places that I would go to every single day. I used to run right across the street from the Sterigenics facility," Collins says.

When Collins brought it up with her peers, many were unaware of the alarming situation. She discussed it with her biology teacher, who told her that ethylene oxide is especially harmful to young people whose bodies are still developing. So Collins and her older sister, Catherine, decided to launch a letter-writing campaign. They gave PowerPoint presentations during their science and history classes, explaining how the chemical alters the genetic composition of organisms and how at sterilization plants like Sterigenics the gas can escape into the atmosphere through back vents. After their presentations, they handed out note cards so students could write to their government officials right away. "They were surprised when they learned that our school was in this danger zone, and a lot of them were really motivated to get involved," Collins says.

The EPA has listed more than 100 census tracts that have higher-than-average cancer rates, some linked to EtO exposure. After the sisters learned more about other areas battling the chemical, they decided to cofound the nonprofit Students Against Ethylene Oxide (SAEtO). They connected with students at other schools, attended community meetings, and lobbied lawmakers. In fall 2019, partly in response to pressure from activists and other citizens, the Sterigenics plant shut down permanently. SAEtO has now expanded to 12 chapters (two more are forming in Mexico and Guatemala) and is pushing for legislation that would ban companies from emitting ethylene oxide within a three-mile radius of schools.

Through her advocacy, Collins learned that the gas is also used to fumigate spices and cosmetics. She and a few other students started a consumer awareness campaign called EtO-Free. On the Instagram account, they post videos with reviews of beauty products that aren't sterilized with the chemical. Collins also learned how to code and is developing an app for easy access to EtO-Free reviews and other information. "The most important thing I've learned as a student activist is to not be embarrassed," Collins says. "It's easy to be self-conscious. But you don't have to be an expert to have a voice."

This article appeared in the March/April edition with the headline "Something in the Air."

To learn more about the wider movement to stop Sterigenics, visit the Stopstergenics Facebook page.