This article has been updated with comments from one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
More than 40 lawsuits have been filed against Sterigenics by people who claim that emissions from the company’s Willowbrook, Ill. medical device sterilization plant have adversely affected their or their relatives’ health, according to a report by the Associated Press.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs filed 32 new suits in Cook County, Ill., this week seeking damages for illnesses that they claim stem from exposure to ethylene oxide (EO), a carcinogenic gas that Sterigenics used to sterilize millions of devices annually.
The Chicago law firm of Power Rogers & Smith represents the plaintiffs in six of the plaintiffs in the suits filed this week, according to associate attorney Brian LaCien. Eleven other suits were filed in Cook County against the company last year, he noted. The plaintiffs are mostly residents of the neighborhood surrounding the plant or relatives of residents, LaCien said. One man filed suit claiming that his late wife, who operated a small business within a few hundred feet of the plant and died of breast cancer, became ill because of proximity to the plant, he added.
Another firm’s plaintiff, Jeanne Hochhalter, attributes her breast cancer directly to EO emissions from the plant, which the state of Illinois shut down in February over such emissions. The plant’s sudden closure caused some device shortages and a push by the FDA to come up with different methods to replace and improve EO sterilization.
“I got breast cancer. I have no family history of it,” Hochhalter told the Associated Press, adding that she’s undergone 15 surgeries during the last six years.
Most of the personal injury lawsuits filed so far relate to cancer, although have linked ethylene oxide emissions to miscarriage or birth defects, according to LaCien.
“There will be more cases filed,” he said. “This is a heavily residential area where government studies showed the cancer risk is 64 times greater than allowable. It’s one of the cancer tracts in the United States within the top 20, and once the plant closed, they tested (for) ethylene oxide and the numbers dropped dramatically.”
Sterigenics has argued that its plant was not the only source of ethylene oxide emissions in the neighborhood. The company and the state reached an agreement last month to reopen the plant in September and the company pledged to upgrade emissions controls at the plant, but a DuPage County judge delayed the reopening to allow Willowbrook and three other municipalities that surround it to join the lawsuit. Those municipalities have until September 6 to do so.
LaCien said the company has long been aware of the cancer risks attributed to ethylene oxide and should have taken care of the situation sooner.
“Their solution now is, ‘We’ll put in a better system to capture it,'” he said. “One, there’s no safe amount of ethylene oxide, but two, why weren’t they doing that 30 years ago when they knew about the risk?”
Sterigenics did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Medical Design & Outsourcing, but a company spokesman told the Associated Press that the company, which is owned by Sotera Health, “has consistently complied with applicable regulations.” The lawsuits lack merit, the spokesman said, and Sterigenics intends to “vigorously defend against them.”