CHICAGO — Cavanagh Law Group filed a lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of a 71-year-old woman who was diagnosed with cancer after decades of ethylene oxide exposure from Sterigenics’ Willowbrook facility.
Since 1984, Sterigenics has used ethylene oxide — a known carcinogen — to sterilize medical equipment at its 24-hour plant in Willowbrook, Ill. The public remained in the dark until 2018 when two federal reports revealed the extent of ethylene oxide (EtO) exposure caused by the southwest suburban facility.
Tens of thousands of people who lived in Cook and DuPage counties had been exposed to dangerously high levels of an invisible, cancer-causing toxin for 34 years. It was a disaster zone, America’s Chernobyl, according to the lawsuit.
“Sterigenics knew about the devastating effects of ethylene oxide and pumped it into the air for decades even though safer alternatives were available,” Cavanagh Law Group founding partner Tim Cavanagh said. “People who live and work in Willowbrook had no idea they were breathing toxic gas.”
Helen Ramos, 71, has lived less than 2.5 miles from the Willowbrook facility since 1992. She was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2012 and was subsequently diagnosed with leukemia.
Cavanagh Law Group on Sept. 4, 2019, filed a lawsuit on Ramos’ behalf seeking damages from Sterigenics U.S., LLC; Willowbrook operations manager Bob Novak; former Willowbrook maintenance supervisor Roger Clark; and GTCR, LLC, the Chicago-based private equity firm that bought Sterigenics International LLC for $675 million in 2011. Former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner was chairman of GTCR at the time.
According to the lawsuit, Sterigenics knowingly and wantonly emitted “excessive, unnecessary and/or dangerous volumes” of ethylene oxide into the air for decades.
Safer sterilization techniques were available, but the corporation placed its own economic interests above the public’s health and well-being. Neither Ramos nor the greater Willowbrook community were told they were breathing ethylene oxide or informed about its harmful effects.
Sterigenics never mitigated ethylene oxide emissions, the lawsuit further says, or adequately studied or tested air quality.
Employees at the Willowbrook facility were never properly trained in how to control, store, monitor, record or dispose of ethylene oxide. Sterigenics also never trained its workers about the carcinogenic effects of ethylene oxide and failed to recognize, reprimand or fire employees who didn’t follow proper procedures.
“It’s time for Sterigenics to be held accountable,” Cavanagh Law Group partner Michael Sorich said. “Sterigenics’ negligence resulted in the needless poisoning of Willowbrook residents and workers in the area for 34 years.”
The lawsuit, which was filed in the Circuit Court of Cook County, accuses Sterigenics and GTRC of negligence, willful and wanton conduct, civil battery, public nuisance and ultrahazardous activity/strict liability. Sterigenics faces additional counts of negligent training and negligent supervision.
Also named in the lawsuit are Bob Novak and Roger Clark, who are being sued for negligence and willful and wanton conduct.
Novak has been the operations manager at Sterigenics’ Willowbrook facility since 2003. In that role, he coordinates and oversees all plant activities, which would include testing and analyzing ethylene oxide emissions. Clark was the Willowbrook maintenance supervisor from the late 1980s until approximately 2015. He was responsible for calibrating internal ethylene oxide monitors and overseeing the plant’s sterilization process.
Sterigenics came under public scrutiny in August 2018 when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a report analyzing air samples taken from 29 locations near the Willowbrook facility in May 2018.
The report, prepared by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), concluded that "an elevated cancer risk exists for residents and off-site workers in the Willowbrook community surrounding the Sterigenics facility” and that those risks “present a public health hazard to these populations.” The agency recommended Sterigenics take immediate action to reduce ethylene oxide emissions.
Also in August 2018 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a National Air Toxics Assessment. That report, which used 2014 data, said the immediate area in DuPage County surrounding Sterigenics’ Willowbrook facility had a cancer risk of 281.8 in 1 million — which is nearly three times higher than the agency’s acceptable limits.
The Illinois EPA in February 2019 temporarily banned the Willowbrook plant from using ethylene oxide, citing concerns about public health. Soon after, the Chicago Tribune reported, average daily concentrations of ethylene oxide were at least 50 percent lower at 10 EPA monitoring sites in the area — and more than 90 percent lower at testing sites closest to Sterigenics. The drastic reduction in ethylene oxide clearly links Sterigenics to carcinogenic air pollution.
The dangers of ethylene oxide have been long documented.
In 1977, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommended the chemical be considered mutagenic and possibly carcinogenic — and said alternate sterilization processes should be used. The organization doubled down in 1981, reporting that no safe levels of ethylene oxide exposure had ever been demonstrated.
In 1985, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said ethylene oxide was “reasonably anticipated” to be a human carcinogen. By 2000, the agency called ethylene oxide a known human carcinogen.
The state of California, which is home to two Sterigenics sterilization plants, designated ethylene oxide a carcinogen in 1987. And the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 1994 classified ethylene oxide as a Group 1 agent, assigning it the label “carcinogenic to humans.”
Acute exposure to ethylene oxide can lead to vomiting, neurological disorders, bronchitis, pulmonary edema and emphysema. Chronic exposure can cause cancer, birth defects, reproductive and developmental impairments and damage to brain and nervous systems.
Helen Ramos vs. Sterigenics U.S., LLC; Bob Novak; Roger Clark; and GTCR, LLC, Case No. 2019 L 009732, is pending in the Circuit Court of Cook County.