Polluted Air in the Windy City: How Ethylene Oxide Emissions at Sterigenics’s Chicagoland Facility led to a Lawsuit Filing Frenzy
After a federal government investigation concluded that Sterigenics’s Willowbrook, Illinois plant was emitting dangerous levels of ethylene oxide into the air, a litany of lawsuits were filed against the company. These cases generally alleged that the plaintiffs developed cancer as a result of breathing in ethylene oxide emissions. As of the last filing, lead counsel for the plaintiffs said that at least 76 lawsuits have been filed against Sterigenics in Illinois. Today, we offer blog readers a summary of the issues which plagued Sterigenics’s Willowbrook facility, the large group of lawsuits currently pending against Sterigenics, and what to expect from these cases going forward.
Issues at Sterigenics’s Willowbrook Facility
Sterigenics, an international sterilization services company, operated a plant in Willowbrook, Illinois since 1984. This plant, which was approximately 20 miles outside of Chicago, used a chemical named ethylene oxide to sterilize products within the facility. Ethylene oxide was previously labeled as a “probable human carcinogen,” but more recently, the Environmental Protection Act (“EPA”) classified the chemical as “carcinogenic to humans by the inhalation route of exposure.”
In July 2018, the federal government’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (“ATSDR”), along with the EPA, published a letter analyzing the emissions coming from Sterigenics’s Willowbrook plant. Namely, the letter documented a recent “30-fold increase in cancer potency” for exposure to ethylene oxide through air emissions. It also highlighted the causal relationship between breathing in ethylene oxide and developing breast cancer. ATSDR concluded that, if the EPA’s data represented typical ethylene oxide levels, “an elevated cancer risk exists for residents and off site workers…surrounding the Sterigenics facility.” The letter’s conclusion also labeled the facility’s ethylene oxide levels as a public health hazard to the Willowbrook community.
Illinois Courts Flooded with Lawsuits against Sterigenics
Shortly after the ATSDR published its letter, the first lawsuit against Sterigenics was filed in September 2018. The plaintiff in this lawsuit was a 30-year-old Willowbrook woman who developed breast cancer, allegedly caused by inhaling ethylene oxide emitted by Sterigenics. The lawsuit was filed as a class action in the Circuit Court of Cook County, and included common law claims such as nuisance, trespass, fraudulent concealment, and negligence.
This first lawsuit was followed by a flood of cases alleging parallel claims against Sterigenics and its corporate parent company. After more than 40 cases were filed, Cook County Judge Christopher Lawler assigned lead counsel to coordinate the early stage proceedings of these lawsuits. While all cases will be allowed to proceed individually, Judge Lawler wanted to ensure the efficiency of pre-trial proceedings given the similarities among all these cases.
One of the most recent lawsuits against Sterigenics was filed in December 2019 by six employees of Hinsdale South High School, which is located just outside Willowbrook. Five of these women were diagnosed with breast cancer, and the other suffers from a form of lymphoma. According to the plaintiffs’ lawyer, the total number of lawsuits is currently at 76. However, lead counsel for these actions expects the number of cases to continue rising.
Sterigenics’s Response and What to Watch in these Cases
In February 2019, the Illinois EPA shut down Sterigenics’ Willowbrook facility due to the ATSDR’s findings. Despite the Illinois EPA eventually allowing Sterigenics to reopen the facility, Sterigenics itself decided to permanently close the plant in September 2019, citing the “inaccurate and unfounded claims regarding Sterigenics and the unstable legislative and regulatory landscape in Illinois…”
In terms of the pending lawsuits against Stergenics, this massive consolidated litigation is far from over. According to lead counsel, these separate lawsuits will likely not be consolidated into one class action because of the differences among the exposure levels and resulting illnesses of each of the plaintiffs. Furthermore, since the parties are only currently conducting discovery – a stage which could potentially last years, especially in a dispute of this magnitude – the plaintiffs are probably years from their requested trials.
All parties expect Sterigenics to strongly challenge the allegations against them in light of the potential economic damages, as well as the reputational damage to the company. Specifically, Sterigenics is likely to attack causation by arguing that its emission of ethylene oxide did not factually cause, nor did it proximately cause, all of the plaintiffs resulting illnesses. In response to a CBS article on this topic, Sterigenics expressed confidence “that it is not responsible for causing the illness[es]” and further stated that the company has “consistently complied with and outperformed applicable regulations.”
Those interesting in the Sterigenics cases should be sure to stay tuned to Coffman Law’s blog, as we will continue to post updates on these lawsuits as they arise.
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