Sterigenics and Cancer
You may have heard or read the front-page news about Sterigenics recently. There is evidence that this Chicago-area business has for decades been releasing toxic, cancer-causing fumes into the Willowbrook community. There is further evidence that some government entities knew about the great public risk this entailed, but did not alert the public. As the evidence against Sterigenics continues to rise, so too do the number of personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits against the company.
Sterigenics is a plant in Willowbrook, located in DuPage County, west of Chicago. As part of its operations, Sterigenics routinely emits the gas ethylene oxide. Ethylene oxide is used to sterilize medical equipment, such as surgical trays. Sterigenics operates over 40 facilities in 13 countries.
According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), when a greater-than-expected number of cancer cases within a group of people in a certain area over a certain amount of time appears, it may be a cancer cluster. Could there be a cancer cluster in Willowbrook?
The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) seems to indicate yes. The agency examined findings from a recent federal NATA (National Air Toxics Assessment) report showing that ethylene oxide is a significant cause of cancer risk. Preliminary findings show that the Willowbrook area is experiencing an exceptionally high rate of cancer, and links it to the gas emissions from Sterigenics.
Ethylene Oxide and Cancer
Ethylene oxide is a known human carcinogen, per the EPA. Over time, exposure to the gas leads to an increased risk of cancer. Many types of cancer are associated with ethylene oxide. These include breast cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, myeloma, and lymphocytic leukemia.
Use and emission of ethylene oxide is a major part of Sterigenics’ operations.
The EPA concluded that even low levels of ethylene oxide cause increased risk of cancer. According to reporting by the Chicago Tribune, state and federal officials were aware of, but did not disclose in a timely manner, the risks that Sterigenics posed to the Willowbrook community. Although some officials knew of the risks as early as December 2017, the information was not released to the public until August 2018.
Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner himself owned stock in the company. After first stating that Sterigenics had followed the rules and that there was no emergency, Rauner has since joined calls for Sterigenics to be closed until it is proven safe.
All individuals are susceptible to harm from exposure to ethylene oxide, but children are at increased risk from the chemical air pollution. Thousands of people live within a one-mile radius of the Sterigenics plant, and there are several schools and daycare centers nearby.
Lawsuits Against Sterigenics
A number of Chicago’s top personal injury lawyers have or will be filing lawsuits against Sterigenics on behalf of families whose loved ones lived, worked, or attended school near the Willowbrook facility. These lawsuits allege multiple theories of liability, including negligence, strict liability, and willful and wanton misconduct. Each claim is based on the general contention Sterigenic emission of ethelyne oxide caused serious injury to, and at times the death, of people in close proximity to the plant. At this time, all the lawsuits are in the early phase of litigation. Although it is too early to determine the ultimate outcome of these lawsuits, what is clear is that Sterigenics will attempt to mount a vigorous defense against the serious allegations by those who maintain the company is responsible for the preventable injury and death of many people in the community.
Town hall meetings in Willowbrook and nearby Darien are scheduled in the coming weeks. Many members of the community are expected to voice concerns not only about the harm Sterigenics may have caused over the last several decades, but also concern over whether the facility continues to pose a danger. A number of state and federal officials are expected to attend these meeting and may or may not provide answers to many of these pressing questions. Thus far, there is no indication whether Governor Rauner will send a representative.
State Lawsuit Against Sterigenics
In the latest development against Sterigenics, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office and DuPage County State’s Attorneys Office have filed a complaint Sterigenics. The complaint alleges, among other things, that Sterigenics has emitted over 254,000 pounds of cancer-causing ethylene oxide into the facility’s surrounding neighborhood from 1993 to 2017. The complaint requests the state court to either shut down Sterigenics or enforce stricter limitations on the emission of ethylene oxide based on the cancer risks. According to Attorney General Lisa Madigan, it took longer than necessary to built the case against Sterigenics because Governor Rauner’s Illinois led-EPA office delayed providing key records and struggled to find an expert witness to testify in court. She further asserts the Rauner administration “hid information on the increased risks from the Sterigenics plant for over eight months.”
Chicago Tribune: Trump and Rauner administrations knew about Sterigenics cancer risks months before telling public, by Michael Hawthorne, 10-26-18
Chicago Tribune: Citing cancer risks, Lisa Madigan, DuPage prosecutor urge court to shut down Sterigenics in Willowbrook, by Michael Hawthorne, 10-30-18