Toxins in the air: Central Illinois factories and plants release millions of pounds of risky chemicals

You are currently viewing Toxins in the air: Central Illinois factories and plants release millions of pounds of risky chemicals
The Kraft Heinz factory in Champaign. Screenshot taken from Google Street View, captured August 2023.

The Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) facility in Decatur, which processes grain products into food ingredients and ethanol, released 2.7 million pounds of toxic chemicals in 2022, including one that can damage the central nervous system.

In Champaign, just blocks away from a residential neighborhood, the Kraft Heinz factory, which makes food products, is one of 14 facilities in the U.S. to emit 16,000 pounds of fumigant to kill termites.

The Viscofan factory in Danville, which makes casings for meat products, released 3 million pounds of a chemical that can cause long-term neurological effects to those in the workplace.

Facilities in central Illinois counties are some of the top sources of toxic air pollutants in the state according to latest data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2022 Toxics Release Inventory.

The inventory tracks the management of toxic chemicals that may pose a threat to human health and the environment. It’s a comprehensive system that tracks pollution from industrial and federal facilities, which are legally required to report this information annually.

While the database has been criticized for not covering all U.S. facilities, how it processes late reports, and loopholes that allow for unreported chemicals in drinking water, it does give the public an idea of the kind of toxic chemicals being used or manufactured in their vicinity.

The amount of toxic releases is estimated and self-reported, but emissions researchers said the system data is mostly reliable because federal laws regulate these chemicals.

Many of the top sources in central Illinois are processing facilities for agricultural or food products, reports show. Eliot Clay, land use programs director at the Illinois Environmental Council, which advocates for clean air policies, said the region has a unique issue with agriculture.

“Not only from just corn, soybean production, which is like a whole issue in and of itself, but the processing and the facilities that are in Decatur and Champaign. These areas are very powerful,” Clay said.

Facilities like ADM or Viscofan are top employers in their respective locations, which Clay said can often be challenging for organizations like the council to fight for changes to environmental policy.

Jackie Anderson, a spokesperson for ADM, said the company’s most-released chemical, hexane, is used to extract vegetable oil from soybeans. ADM closely monitors its compliance with the EPA’s control standards, she said.

Chelsea Slaggert, a spokesperson for Kraft Heinz, said the facility is treated with sulfuryl fluoride twice a year to make sure products are pest-free. 

“We use an EPA-registered product that does not have an impact on the safety of our ingredients and only certified professionals administer it when the plant is closed,” she said.

A representative from Viscofan did not return multiple requests for comment.

Violations and EPA compliance

“There are plenty of companies, whether you’re talking about air, or water or land permits for whatever, that do get repeated violations under different aspects of the Environmental Protection Act, but are allowed to continue to operate,” Clay said.

As of April, Viscofan in Danville has been cited for a “high priority violation” of the Clean Air Act for the past year. This type of violation is the most serious level noted in EPA databases. The Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) program reports that the violation is related to the facility’s emissions of the EPA’s list of hazardous air pollutants.

The facility produces casings for meat like sausages and bratwurst. These include the thin, edible material that sausage links are made of, plastic casings and fibrous products.

Viscofan has also been penalized for workplace safety concerns according to Violation Tracker. The most recent violation was in 2023 related to a health complaint resulting in a $40,000 penalty from OSHA.

The ADM Decatur facility is currently in compliance with federal environmental laws, though it has had a history of violations. In 2003, the Department of Justice and the EPA announced a $4.6 million settlement with multiple ADM facilities nationwide to reduce emissions of several pollutants because of inaccurate reporting.

In 2015, the Decatur facility, which serves at the company’s headquarters, was found to have violated the Clean Air Act and was fined $1.7 million. The facility is also a top emitter of carbon dioxide, a significant contributor to climate change. More recently, the facility faced a lot of scrutiny after a series of accidents, injuries and one death occurred last year.

At Kraft Heinz in Champaign, there have been several periods of less severe noncompliance with the Clean Water Act in the past three years. In August 2023, the factory received backlash from local communities after a malfunction with their water treatment system caused a strong, foul odor. Some residents reported nausea and headaches, taking their complaints to city officials, the Illinois EPA and eventually the federal EPA.

Champaign County emissions

2022 was the first decrease in county-wide releases to the air and water since 2019. However, almost all releases in the county are to the air. 

About 76% of all production-related waste in the county is recycled, 16% is treated, 1% is used for energy recovery and the remaining 7% is disposed of or released. This 7% is typically the focus of EPA efforts to reduce harm to human health and the environment.

There are 14 facilities in Champaign County that release toxic chemicals. Just four of these facilities account for almost all of the toxic air releases. The Kraft-Heinz factory on Bradley Avenue leads with the most releases, with over 10,000 more pounds of emissions than the second-largest, the Hudson Technologies chemical plant in Urbana.

In the last ten years, the chemical released into Champaign County air the most has been chlorodifluoromethane or HCFC-22. According to the EPA, this chemical is in a phaseout program due to its harmful effects on the ozone layer. HCFC-22 is used as a refrigerant and should be completely phased out by 2030.

But more recently, the noteworthy chemical is sulfuryl fluoride. In 2022, most of the air releases were sulfuryl fluoride, accounting for about 38% of emissions in the county. All 16,500 pounds of this chemical, a popular fumigant used for termites, came from the Kraft Heinz factory.

The factory is the sole source of sulfuryl fluoride in Champaign County and its use started in 2014, EPA data shows.

Sulfuryl fluoride: a little-known greenhouse gas

Sulfuryl fluoride has come under scrutiny in recent years. It’s a common man-made pesticide that treats termites and other wood-boring insects. But it’s also a potent greenhouse gas that lingers in the atmosphere for over 40 years, according to a recent study in Communications Earth & Environment, a journal from Nature Portfolio that publishes research papers across all areas of earth and environment sciences. 

“Phasing out sulfuryl fluoride or mitigating sulfuryl fluoride emissions globally could sort of have the impact of taking 5 million cars off the road, which is pretty significant,” Dylan Gaeta, a Johns Hopkins doctoral student and lead researcher of the study, said in an interview.

Compared to carbon dioxide, the dominant greenhouse gas in our atmosphere, sulfuryl fluoride is about 7,500 times more potent on a ton-per-ton basis in the first 20 years after emission.

About 60 to 85% of all U.S. emissions of the chemical — in the millions of tons — come from California, where termites are a year-round problem. The colorful tents used to seal off fumigated structures like office buildings and homes are a common sight in the state.

Gaeta said that while 16,000 pounds of emissions from Kraft Heinz in Champaign might not be a large amount compared to California, it’s still indicative of a larger problem. 

The U.S. has ambitious goals of achieving net zero emissions of greenhouse gasses by 2050. Sulfuryl fluoride is categorized as a greenhouse gas of interest by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, yet not included in the 2015 Paris Agreement, the international treaty on climate change.

“The idea that, like, just applying more pesticides to our food as a solution for pest control is not a sustainable or scalable model,” Gaeta said. 

Sulfuryl fluoride is different from substances like carbon dioxide because it’s completely manufactured, created in the 1950s as an alternative to an ozone-depleting pesticide called methyl bromide. 

“It’s a problem that’s been entirely caused by big chemical companies that manufacture this gas, sort of like, against nature’s will. We’re learning the hard way that this doesn’t break down very quickly,” Gaeta said.

Pesticides and human health

Sulfuryl fluoride also has documented health effects, even contributing to some deaths of fumigation workers. As a neurotoxin, symptoms from low levels of exposure include shortness of breath, wheezing, confusion and increased blood pressure. Due to its widespread use in California, environmental groups have tried petitioning the state Air Resources Control Board to regulate the chemical. 

The long-term effects of background exposure to sulfuryl fluoride aren’t well understood. Nathan Donley, environmental health science director at the Center for Biological Diversity, a national nonprofit, said that fact makes efforts to ban the chemical much more important.

“The good news is, the adjacent neighborhood is going to be exposed to less than a worker at the (Kraft Heinz) factory will be exposed to, but they’re also going to have no protection at all,” Donley said. 

Historically, Donley said chemicals with lethal, immediate toxicity are focused on in terms of policy and collective community action, but that means chemicals with chronic effects are largely ignored until years down the line, and research shows policymakers could’ve been more proactive. 

“Let’s act proactively,” Donley said. “So we’re not waiting around twiddling our thumbs for 20 years until we say, ‘Oh, okay, there’s a problem, let’s do something.’”

When it comes to policy, Clay with the Illinois Environmental Council said depending on the chemical, they can choose to focus on its health effects or, in the case of pesticides, the effect on the environment. But policy moves slowly, he said.

“The more well-known ones are regulated, and there’s limits on it,” he said. “But we’re living in a time where technology is evolving constantly. And there’s new things being entered into the market, that we just don’t know what the long-term impacts are.”

Clay acknowledged that factories will continue to release chemicals but we don’t have to “wait for the worst to happen.” Awareness and action comes from educating communities about the things going on in their own backyards, he said.

“Because ultimately, the things that are really going to change things, like in Springfield for example, are when constituents themselves are going to lawmakers and saying, ‘This is a problem. This is in my community, it’s in your district, and I want to see something get done about it,’” he said. 

Leave a Reply