Slapped with the largest jury verdict for an individual in Cook County, Sterigenics agreed Monday to settle scores of other Illinois lawsuits accusing the company of poisoning the west suburbs for decades with cancer-causing ethylene oxide.
A claims administrator will be appointed to distribute $408 million to as many as 870 people who sued Oak Brook-based Sterigenics, which used the highly toxic gas to sterilize medical equipment, pharmaceutical drugs and spices near Kingery Highway and Interstate 55 in Willowbrook.
Lawsuits against the company began piling up in state and federal courts after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revealed in 2018 that the Willowbrook facility was responsible for some of the nation’s highest cancer risks from toxic air pollution.
In September, a Cook County jury found Sterigenics and two corporate successors liable for $363 million in damages for exposing just one Willowbrook woman to ethylene oxide, also known as EtO.
Sterigenics, once owned by a private equity fund cofounded by former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, continues to say its operation did not harm any of its neighbors.
The company said in a statement that settling the remaining Illinois lawsuits was in the best interest of its owners. It attributed the decision to “years of biased media coverage in the greater Chicago area,” the cost of appealing a record jury verdict and the time and money needed to defend hundreds of other claims.
In Georgia, the company also faces lawsuits from hundreds of residents who say they were exposed to cancer-linked toxins by Sterigenics’ operations in Cobb County. It is unclear what the Illinois settlement means for the Georgia cases.
Sterigenics has denied wrongdoing, insisting the plant near Smyrna emits only a safe level of the gas and operates well within state and federal limits. The company is also being sued by nearby homeowners who say the plant has harmed their property values.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
A federal trial is set for February in a separate dispute with Cobb County over the company’s occupancy permit.
Lawyers for Sue Kamuda, winner of the megamillions verdict against Sterigenics, highlighted emails and documents showing the company knew long ago that ethylene oxide is extremely dangerous. Sterigenics and previous owners of the Willowbrook plant delayed installing pollution-control equipment and undermined federal regulations that would have required improvements at sterilization facilities, the documents showed.
After monitoring EtO pollution in and around Willowbrook for several months during late 2018 and early 2019, the EPA concluded that Sterigenics’ emissions increased the risk of developing cancer for people living as far as 25 miles away. Other suburbs with the highest risks included Darien, Burr Ridge, Hinsdale, Indian Head Park and Western Springs.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker banned the company from using ethylene oxide at one point. Sterigenics closed the plant for good in 2019 under pressure from community groups, local officials, state lawmakers and members of Congress.
Asked about the newly announced legal settlement, the group Stop Sterigenics said it supports “victims in whatever decisions they make.” Regarding Sterigenics, the group said “we expect nothing less from a company that has shown a blatant disregard for human life and specifically the value of lives of people in our community.”
Other industrial sources of ethylene oxide continue to legally operate under federal regulations that haven’t been updated to reflect the EPA’s latest assessment of the toxic gas. That could change if President Joe Biden’s administration follows through on promises to adopt more stringent limits on pollution from sterilization facilities, including eight operated by Sterigenics.
EPA officials are planning public meetings in nearly two dozen communities where breathing ethylene oxide from sterilizers is responsible for more than 1 case of cancer for every 10,000 people exposed during their lifetime.
In 2018, the list included neighborhoods surrounding a Medline Industries facility in north suburban Waukegan. Medline has since installed new pollution controls and dramatically reduced ethylene oxide emissions. EPA officials say they no longer consider the company’s pollution to pose unacceptable health risks.
AJC staff reporter Brian Eason contributed.
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