I learned about light switches in freshman year biology. No, not the kind on your kitchen wall, but the switch that mutates DNA and causes cancer. Around the same time, I discovered that for over 30 years, the Sterigentics company continuously emitted high levels of the carcinogenic gas Ethylene Oxide (EtO) near my home and my district’s two high schools. As a result, my community suffered from a cancer rate more than nine-times the national average. Because my town was left in the dark about the emissions, I was extremely excited when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced they were holding a community forum to answer questions.
After thoughtfully brainstorming questions for the forum, when I received the microphone, I asked, “what specific measures can students take to best protect themselves against cancer from EtO in the future?” The federal agency doctor who took my question flippantly responded, “I suggest that students not smoke in order to avoid getting cancer.”
I was surprised. Why did her response have no correlation to the health crisis surrounding EtO? I knew many didn’t picture that girls had interest in the science behind issues, but I never expected to be treated with so little respect that government scientists would disregard the importance of my health concerns. Leaving the meeting with more questions than answers, I strived to never again let adults talk down to students, especially not girls interested in STEM like me.
As a response, my sister and I started a group called Students Against Ethylene Oxide (SAEtO). Through our student led group, I organized letter writing campaigns and public protests, attended judicial and legislative hearings, and lobbied government officials. We collaborated with local groups including my school’s ecology club, citizens’ groups such as Stop Sterigenics and EtO Research-Response, and last but not least, a band of retired scientists and educators calling themselves the EtO Sleuths! When our call for attention to the EtO-cancer problem helped pass the Matt Haller Act, the “toughest law regulating EtO emissions in the world,” I discovered that students banding together had the power to break the stereotype against teenagers and girls in STEM.
As for my community, our constant letters, emails, calls, and shouts to lawmakers and the public pressured the EtO polluter in my neighborhood to turn off the light switch at their facility. But, with SAEtO students at four high schools in Illinois, plus representatives in Indiana and Georgia, we will continue to fight for EtO free air nationwide!