Jury says Sterigenics should pay cancer survivor $363 million
Around the same time that Sue Kamuda moved to Willowbrook in the mid-1980s, a Chicago company chose the western suburbs as the new site for its expanding business of sterilizing medical instruments, pharmaceutical drugs and spices.
Two low buildings, tucked behind retailers and restaurants on Kingery Highway, didn’t get much attention until 2018, when the US Environmental Protection Agency revealed people living nearby were at risk to some of the highest cancer risks in the country due to toxic air pollution.
The culprit: ethylene oxide, or EtO, an odorless gas pumped into fumigation chambers inside the sterilization facility and then released into surrounding quarters.
Kamuda, a retired school administrator, suspected she had finally found out why she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. She had been breathing EtO for years at her home a third of a mile away.
On Monday, a Cook County jury agreed, finding the facility’s original owner and two corporate successors liable for $363 million in damages for exposing Kamuda to poison gas. The verdict is the largest ever for an individual in Illinois.
Sterigenics, the newest owner, should pay $258 million, the jurors decided. They also imposed penalties of $100 million on parent company Sotera Health and $5 million on Griffith Foods, the current name of the original owner.
Kamuda is the first of more than 700 people to apply for an award from Oak Brook-based Sterigenics.
“I hope this makes it easier for all of them,” Kamuda said after the verdict, revealing for the first time that one of his sons was diagnosed with cancer and filed his own lawsuit against the company. .
Emails and corporate documents highlighted on a courtroom screen showed the companies have long known that ethylene oxide is extremely dangerous. But the companies delayed installing pollution control equipment and tried to undermine federal regulations that would require costly upgrades to sterilization facilities, the documents show.
“They didn’t treat EtO like a carcinogen, they treated it like an ATM machine,” Kamuda lead attorney Patrick Salvi II said.
Sterigenics and Sotera said in a statement they may appeal the verdict.
“We do not believe that the jury’s verdict in this case reflects the evidence presented in court,” the companies’ statement said. “We will continue to vigorously defend ourselves against allegations regarding our operations and our ethylene oxide emissions.”
Lawyers for the companies argued that Salvi provided no evidence that Kamuda’s breast cancer was caused by exposure to ethylene oxide. They also brought in industry-connected scientists who tried to persuade the jury that the Willowbrook facility never posed a danger to its neighbors.
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The now closed Willowbrook plant was built in the early 1980s by the company now known as Griffith Foods. Sotera Health absorbed Sterigenics after a series of mergers, corporate restructurings and private equity deals, including one brokered by a company co-founded by former Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner.
After monitoring ethylene oxide concentrations in and around Willowbrook for several months, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that Sterigenics pollution increases the risk of developing cancer for people living up to 25 miles from the sterilization facility. Other suburbs with the highest risk included Darien, Burr Ridge, Hinsdale, Indian Head Park and Western Springs.
Sterigenics closed the plant in 2019 under pressure from community groups, local officials, state lawmakers, members of Congress and Governor JB Pritzker, who at one point that year banned the company from to use ethylene oxide.
President Joe Biden’s administration promises to enact tougher limits on pollution from sterilization facilities, eight of which are still operated by Sterigenics.
Agency officials announced this month that they will hold public meetings in nearly two dozen communities where breathing ethylene oxide from sterilizers is responsible for more than one in 10 cancer cases. 000 people exposed during their lifetime.
In 2018, this list included neighborhoods surrounding a Medline Industries facility in the northern suburb of Waukegan. Medline has since installed new pollution controls and significantly reduced ethylene oxide emissions. EPA officials say they no longer consider the company’s pollution to pose unacceptable health risks.