Initial arguments filed in first case alleging Sterigenics contamination caused cancer and other diseases

When Sue Kamuda moved to Willowbrook in the mid-1980s, she had no idea her new home was a cancer-causing air pollution hotspot.

By the time she and her neighbors first learned about pollution in 2018, Kamuda was more than a decade away from receiving treatment for breast cancer. The fear, sadness, and anger she felt after her diagnosis returned, tempered by reminding herself that she had survived long enough to retire comfortably and watch her eight grandchildren grow up.

Now Kamuda is the first of more than 700 people seeking retaliation from Sterigenics, an Oak Brook-based company that released cancer-causing ethylene oxide into neighborhoods surrounding a Willowbrook facility where the toxic gas was used for decades to sterilize medical devices.

A trial that began Thursday in Cook County Circuit Court will review a federal investigation that concluded Sterigenics was responsible for long-term cancer risks up to 10 times higher than what the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates. consider acceptable.

cancer risks remained high in Willowbrook and nearby suburbs despite improvements Sterigenics voluntarily undertook in 2019 to prevent all but one-tenth of 1% of the ethylene oxide it used from escaping into residential areas, the EPA found after monitoring the company’s contamination for several months.

During opening arguments in a Daley Center courtroom, Kamuda’s attorneys anticipated how his case will be based in part on industry documents showing Sterigenics executives feared losing one of their most lucrative businesses if the federal government limited or prohibited the use of ethylene oxide in commercial sterilizers.

Every time workplace safety or environmental regulators have proposed tougher controls, said attorney Patrick Salvi II, Sterigenics has participated in efforts to block them in Washington and state capitals.

Among the documents projected on a courtroom screen was an email from 2018 sent to various company executives. Lobbyists for chemical manufacturers and the sterilization industry thought they might “force the EPA to use an alternative” to a 2016 report concluding that ethylene oxide is much more dangerous than previously thought, the email said.

the EPA report — based on decades of animal research and a study of 17,000 workers at sterilization facilities — found that breathing even small amounts of ethylene oxide over a person’s lifetime can trigger breast cancer, leukemia and lymphomas. Two panels of independent investigators agreed with the agency’s conclusions.

An excerpt from the Sterigenics email highlighted by Salvi did not provide details. but a 2019 Chicago Tribune investigation documented how the company helped fund research by industry-related scientists who claim that ethylene oxide is harmful only at high levels of exposure.

“At the end of the day, this is a simple case,” Salvi told the jury. “This company put too much carcinogen in the air, it got into a woman’s lungs and that woman got breast cancer.”

Ann Marie Duffy, an attorney for Sterigenics and its parent company, Sotera Health, noted during her opening arguments that the companies could base their defense in part on the same industry scientists whose research was rejected by the EPA and its advisers.

Duffy repeatedly emphasized to jurors that breast cancer is very common. She promised that the defense team will prove that Sterigenics did not harm Kamuda, arguing that the human body naturally produces more ethylene oxide than the synthetic version emitted by the sterilization facility.

“Your case will try to make our clients angry and ignore the scientific evidence,” Duffy said of Kamuda’s attorneys.

The Willowbrook facility, he said, “was at the forefront of technology and always in compliance with its (environmental) permits.”

sterigenic closed Willowbrook plant in 2019 under pressure from community groups, local officials, state legislators, members of Congress, and Governor JB Pritzker, who at one point that year banned company by the use of ethylene oxide.

Duffy noted that the Illinois EPA had approved a new permit that would have prohibited Sterigenics from releasing more than 85 pounds of the toxic gas annually, down from the 4,600 pounds the company reported emitting during 2017. The only reason company officials left Willowbrook is that the owner refused to renew his lease, he said.

Reports from state and federal health agencies tell a more complicated story.

An analysis by the Illinois Department of Public Health found that women and girls who lived near Sterigenics between 1995 and 2015 suffered higher-than-expected rates of certain types of cancer associated with long-term exposure to ethylene oxide.

The US EPA investigation concluded that Sterigenics contamination increased the risk of developing cancer for people living as far away as 25 miles away of the Willowbrook facility. Other suburbs with the highest risks include Darien, Burr Ridge, Hinsdale, Indian Head Park and Western Springs.

Sterigenics and its corporate predecessors emitted considerably more ethylene oxide when Kamuda became a Willowbrook resident: 169,000 pounds in 1987 alone, according to company documents filed with the EPA.

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“They have been poisoning us for years and they knew it,” Kamuda told the Tribune in 2018.

Salvi said one of his expert witnesses will show the jury that the company likely underestimated the amount of pollution it released into surrounding neighborhoods.

Other industrial sources of ethylene oxide throughout the country continue to operate legally under federal regulations that have not been updated to reflect the EPA last evaluation of toxic gas.

In April 2021, the EPA inspector general reported that industry-related political appointees in the Trump administration prevented the agency from investigating ethylene oxide polluters and prevented career personnel from warning Americans about the dangers.

Biden’s EPA promises to adopt stricter limits about contamination from sterilization facilities, including eight that are still operated by Sterigenics.

Agency officials announced this month that they will hold public meetings in nearly two dozen communities where breathe ethylene oxide of sterilizers is responsible for more than 1 case of cancer for every 10,000 people exposed during their lifetime. Neither is in Illinois.

mhawthorne@chicagotribune.com

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