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From Products Liability Law Daily, September 28, 2018

Suit links breast cancer to ethylene oxide emissions from Illinois sterilization plant

By Susan Engstrom

A 67-year-old woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer has filed suit against the owners and operators of a sterilization facility in Willowbrook, Illinois, alleging that her illness was a direct and proximate result of inhaling the plant’s emissions of ethylene oxide, a known carcinogen. Asserting claims for negligence, ultrahazardous activity/strict liability, willful and wanton conduct, civil battery, and public nuisance, the Willowbrook resident is seeking an injunction ordering the defendants to cease using ethylene oxide in the plant immediately or, alternatively, to modify their operations so that the cancer risk from ethylene oxide emissions is at or below acceptable levels (Kamuda v. Sterigenics International, Inc., September 26, 2018).

According to the resident’s complaint, the defendants—Sterigenics International, Inc., Sterigenics International LLC, and Sterigenics U.S., LLC (collectively, Sterigenics)—have been releasing ethylene oxide (EtO) into the air in the Willowbrook area since 1984. The facility in question sprays the substance into gas chambers to sterilize medical equipment and pharmaceuticals. From there, it allegedly escapes through vents without any pollution controls. The resident, who lives approximately 0.3 miles from the plant, alleged that these emissions are 64 times the acceptable limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and has caused the surrounding area to "become one of the most toxic and one of the most dangerous communities from a health and well-being standpoint in the entire country."

Allegations. The resident’s complaint asserted that Sterigenics knew or should have known that the EtO gas from its facility would have a toxic, poisonous, and highly deleterious effect on the health, safety, and well-being of persons breathing it. According to the resident, Sterigenics breached its duty to exercise ordinary care for her health and engaged in willful and wanton conduct by emitting EtO in dangerous levels, failing to warn her and others in the community that they were inhaling the substance, and exposing them to an elevated cancer risk. The complaint also alleged that because the activities of Sterigenics are ultrahazardous, the company is strictly liable for any injuries proximately resulting therefrom.

The resident further contended that as a direct and proximate result of Sterigenics’ omissions, willful and wanton conduct, and ultrahazardous activities, and as a direct and proximate result of inhaling EtO from the facility, she developed breast cancer that caused her to incur large medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, mental anguish, disability, disfigurement, reduced life expectancy, and a loss of her normal life. She filed similar claims against Sterigenics’ parent company, GTCR, LLC, as well as the Willowbrook plant’s operations manager and ethylene oxide validation coordinator. She is seeking an injunction to halt the plant’s use of EtO or, in the alternative, to reduce its emissions to safe levels.

Other actions. Other complaints have been filed against Sterigenics as well, including a purported class action brought on behalf of other individuals who live or have lived within a one- to six-mile radius of the Willowbrook facility from 1984 to the present. In addition, in a September 27 letter to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. EPA stated that its national Office of Air and Radiation will be collecting and analyzing technical information from the site, including recent stack testing results, risk and exposure modeling, and ambient monitoring. The agency noted, however, that the air concentrations of EtO are "not high enough to cause immediate harm to health for the people in and around Willowbrook."

The case is No. 2018L010475.

Attorneys: Patrick A. Salvi (Salvi, Schostok & Pritchard PC) for Susan Kamuda and Edward Kamuda.

Companies: Sterigenics International, Inc.; Sterigenics International LLC; Sterigenics US, LLC

MainStory: TopStory WarningsNews CausationNews DamagesNews ChemicalNews IllinoisNews

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