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A Cook County, Illinois jury on Monday awarded 70-year-old Sue Kamuda $363 million in the first of nearly 800 lawsuits filed against a Chicago suburban medical tool sterilization company.
Kamuda claimed ethylene oxide gas emitted by Sterigenics, a medical tool sterilization company in the south Chicago suburb of Willowbrook, caused her breast cancer.
The company, located a third of a mile from Kamuda’s home, was in operation from 1985 until 2019.
The jury’s award included $38 million in compensatory damages and $325 million in punitive damages.
Sterigenics’ parent company, Sotera Health, and its predecessor, Griffith Foods also were named in the suit. They were ordered to pay $100 million and $5 million respectively.
Griffith Micro Science, a spin-off of Griffith Laboratories, provides sterilization services to the medical and food industries. The company released nearly 170,000 pounds of ethylene oxide from the Willowbrook plant in 1987, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Toxics Release Inventory.
Sterigenics said it will appeal Monday’s ruling.
On Tuesday, Earthjustice, on behalf of environmental and health advocacy groups, sent a 60-day Notice of Intent to sue the EPA over the agency’s “inaction to regulate harmful carcinogenic air emissions from ethylene oxide facilities as the law required,” the organization said in a press release.
According to Earthjustice:
“The EPA admits the chemical is 60 times more toxic than previously estimated and that facilities that emit ethylene oxide, including commercial sterilizers and chemical manufacturers, pose an elevated cancer risk to nearby communities. Children are particularly sensitive to ethylene oxide when exposed.”
Ethylene oxide is used by hospitals and the medical equipment industry in lieu of steam to sterilize heat-sensitive tools and equipment. As early as the 1930s, ethylene oxide was used to fumigate hospital rooms, according to the Chicago Tribune.
In 1940, two executives at Griffith Laboratories, also a supplier to Chicago’s meatpacking industry, “patent[ed] a method that pumps ethylene oxide into a vacuum chamber to sterilize spices and other food preservatives.” The U.S. Army also used the chemical to disinfect troop rations that year.
According to the EPA:
“Ethylene oxide is carcinogenic to humans by the inhalation route of exposure. Evidence in humans indicates that exposure to ethylene oxide increases the risk of lymphoid cancer and, for females, breast cancer.”
As early as 2004, a National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health study of more than 18,000 workers at 17 sterilization plants linked the chemical to breast cancer and lymphomas.
In 2019, six teachers from Hinsdale South High School, less than a mile from the Sterigenics plant, sued the company. All were diagnosed with breast cancer or non-Hodgkin lymphoma between 2007 and 2019.
Plaintiffs in other lawsuits claimed their leukemia, lymphoma, miscarriages and blood disorders were caused by the plant’s emission of ethylene oxide. The EPA has warned about ethylene oxide’s link to reproductive effects.
Commenting on Monday’s verdict, Kamuda’s lawyer, Patrick Salvi with Salvi, Schostok & Pritchard said:
“We’re talking about a cancer-causing, pregnancy-ending chemical. It is literally a ‘sterilant’ that they were allowing people to breathe in unnecessarily.”
During the trial, Sterigenics attorneys said ethylene oxide levels were not high enough to have caused Kamuda’s cancer.
A woman who requested anonymity because she was not authorized to talk about her relatives’ health told The Defender:
“My sister, sister-in-law and stepmother all developed cancer after living less than a mile from the plant. While I am happy for the verdict and what it suggests for others to come, this is a criminal company and this should have never happened to my relatives or anyone else.”
A Chicago private equity firm, GTCR, co-founded by former Illinois governor, Bruce Rauner, bought Sterigenics in 2011.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Rauner, who served as governor from 2015-2019, quit the firm a year later to run for Illinois governor but retained a financial interest in Sterigenics.