Around the same time Sue Kamuda moved to Willowbrook during the mid-1980s, a Chicago company chose the west suburb as a new site for its rapidly expanding business sterilizing medical instruments, pharmaceutical drugs and spices.
Two low-slung buildings, tucked behind retailers and restaurants on Kingery Highway, didn’t attract much attention until 2018, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revealed that people living nearby faced some of the nation’s highest cancer risks from 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 neighborhoods.
Kamuda, a retired school administrator, suspected she finally had discovered why she had been 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 the toxic gas. The verdict is the largest ever for an individual in Illinois.
Sterigenics, the most recent owner, should pay $258 million, jurors decided. They also levied sanctions of $100 million against parent company Sotera Health and $5 million against Griffith Foods, the current name of the original owner.
Kamuda is the first of more than 700 people seeking recompense from Oak Brook-based Sterigenics.
“I hope that this makes it easier for all of them,” Kamuda said after the verdict, revealing for the first time that one of her sons has been diagnosed with cancer and has filed his own lawsuit against the company.
Emails and corporate documents highlighted on a courtroom screen showed the companies knew long ago that ethylene oxide is extremely dangerous. But the companies delayed installing pollution-control equipment and attempted to undermine federal regulations that would require costly improvements at sterilization facilities, the documents showed.
“They did not treat EtO like a carcinogen, they treated it like an ATM,” said Kamuda’s lead attorney, Patrick Salvi II.
Sterigenics and Sotera said in a statement they might appeal the verdict.
“We do not believe the jury verdict in this matter reflects the evidence presented in court,” the companies’ statement said. “We will continue to vigorously defend against allegations about our ethylene oxide operations and emissions.”
Lawyers for the companies argued that Salvi offered no proof that Kamuda’s breast cancer was caused by exposure to ethylene oxide. They also brought in industry-connected scientists who attempted to persuade the jury the Willowbrook facility never posed a danger to its neighbors.
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The now-closed Willowbrook facility 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 firm co-founded by former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner.
After monitoring ethylene oxide concentrations in and around Willowbrook for several months, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that Sterigenics’ pollution increased the risk of developing cancer for people living as far as 25 miles away from the sterilization facility. Other suburbs with the highest risks 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 Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who at one point that year banned the company from using ethylene oxide.
President Joe Biden’s administration is promising to adopt more stringent limits on pollution from sterilization facilities, including eight still operated by Sterigenics.
Agency officials announced this month they will hold 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, that 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.