This article has been updated with a comment from Sterigenics.
Six women who taught at a high school near the Sterigenics sterilization plant in Willowbrook, Ill., have sued the company, claiming that exposure to ethylene oxide (EtO) emissions from the plant gave them cancer.
The former teachers worked at Hinsdale South High School in Willowbrook during the years that the Sterigenics plant was operating less than a mile away, according to their attorney, Shawn Collins. The plant, which used EtO to sterilize millions of devices annually, operated from 1984 until February 2019. Five of the women were diagnosed with breast cancer, the sixth with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
The lawsuit, filed yesterday in Cook County Circuit Court, brings the total of legal claims against Sterigenics brought by people who lived and worked near the plant to about 85, Collins noted. It highlights an August 2018 U.S. government report — the National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) — which documents the public health effects of EtO emissions.
NATA estimates that EtO significantly contributes to potential elevated cancer risks in certain census tracts across the U.S., including the Willowbrook area. These elevated risks are largely driven by an EPA risk value that was updated in December 2016. The EPA conducted a previous assessment of the health effects of EtO exposure in 1985.
The ex-teachers’ lawsuit alleges that from 1984 through its recent closure, Sterigenics knew about the adverse health effects of chronic EtO inhalation but failed to prevent emissions or warn the community about EtO risks. The NATA report revealed the Willowbrook area’s “staggering and disproportionate risks of cancer,” according to a news release from the law firm representing the teachers.
“EtO is unsafe at any level,” Collins said in the release. “The carcinogenic effects of EtO have been widely known since the 1940s. Still, Sterigenics chose to operate its business and emit EtO in a densely populated area full of children, houses, parks, schools, and businesses. A plant as dangerous as this should never have been located in a residential community.”
The ex-teachers’ lawsuit has been consolidated into a larger claim that lists 11 schools and child-care centers located within two miles of the Sterigenics plant.
“Technologies to control EtO have been in use since the 1980s,” adds Collins, “but Sterigenics operated for years in Willowbrook without using the best practices and controls to reduce its emissions. As a result, Willowbrook became one of the most toxic towns in America.”
“Sterigenics empathizes with anyone battling cancer,” the company said in an email to Medical Design & Outsourcing. “Sterigenics is confident that it is not responsible for causing the illness. We operate safely to sterilize vital medical products and have consistently complied with and outperformed applicable regulations. We intend to vigorously defend against unfounded and meritless claims.”
The Sterigenics’ Willowbrook plant closure sparked an ongoing crisis over medtech sterilization using EtO. Since then, two other facilities were shut down in Georgia, although one has reopened. Viant signed a consent agreement in this month with the state of Michigan to stop using EtO at its plant in Grand Rapids.
The stakes are high for the medtech industry, the healthcare systems and the public. More than 20 billion medical devices are sterilized using EtO annually, according to the trade group AdvaMed. The Sterigenics Willowbrook plant closure sent hospitals scrambling for alternative sources of critical devices. Although no major device shortages have ensued, the FDA and the industry have issued dire warnings about that possibility.
Sterigenics did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the latest lawsuit.