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Cancer Causing Chemicals: What Willowbrook Residents Can Learn from the Lockformer TCE Lawsuits

Willowbrook has been in the news recently because of a federal government report which revealed that Sterigenics has been contaminating the community with a carcinogen known as ethylene oxide for decades, resulting in a significantly elevated cancer risk for nearby residents. This situation reminds me of some similar cases I was involved in: the Lockformer lawsuits in Lisle, IL.

My name is Shawn Collins. I'm the lawyer whose firm--The Collins Law Firm in Naperville-- represented a community of families in those cases. In three separate cases, we successfully won from the polluter (Lockformer, in Lisle) $27 million in property damage; a generous settlement (the precise amount remains confidential) for a young woman who had contracted cancer from exposure to the chemical; tens of millions more for a fund for future cancer victims; and a safe, clean water supply for hundreds of area families.

The saddest but most meaningful case was the one for the young cancer victim. Her illness is why we are right to take so seriously toxic contamination in our communities. We don't want devastating illness to happen to anyone we love.

A little history: for decades, Lockformer had been spilling a dangerous chemical, trichloroethylene ("TCE") on its property. Over the years, the chemical bled into area groundwater, which served as the water supply for many Lisle-area families. Because TCE is colorless and odorless, the families were exposed it to it for many years before it was discovered. I recall vividly that, just as my firm and I got involved, the Illinois EPA was ready to declare that the TCE had not migrated off of the company's property, and posed no danger to area residents. The truth at that very moment, however, was that the TCE had migrated almost 3 miles off of the company's property, and exposed many people to its dangers.

There are many similarities between my Lockformer cases and the situation that the people of Willowbrook were stunned to learn of last week. Like Lockformer, Sterigenics is a company located essentially in the middle of a residential community. Like Lockformer, Sterigenics has been exposing local residents, without their knowledge, to a dangerous chemical (ethylene oxide) for many years. Like TCE, ethylene oxide is a human carcinogen.

Since the Lockformer case, I have successfully handled many other cases like it around the country for families in communities like Lisle and Willowbrook. This is what I have learned from those cases that may be of value to the people of Willowbrook today:

· You cannot trust the polluter to tell you the truth. Sterigenics has stated publicly that it has drastically limited its emissions of ethylene oxide. Don't take their word for it. Make them prove it to you.

· You cannot trust the EPA to tell you the truth. You support EPA with your taxes, but, through ignorance, laziness, being under-funded or worse, the EPA is more on the polluter's side than yours. If they were truly on your side, Sterigenics would not have been allowed to pollute your homes and schools for decades.

· The only "safe level" of these industrial chemicals is zero. Chemicals like ethylene oxide and TCE are more dangerous than we are being told. Over decades, successive studies of the health effects of industrial chemicals reveal them to be more dangerous than the previous study. No concentration is safe in the human body. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

· These chemicals are even more dangerous to children than to adults. Children's bodies are smaller, and so the same dose of these chemicals can do more damage to them. Plus, children's immune systems are not yet mature, and so they do not process and expel toxins as efficiently as adults.

· Fight. Families endangered by years of ethylene oxide pollution need to organize themselves--as the people of the Willowbrook area seem to be doing. Tell your political leaders in no uncertain terms that Sterigenics and its cancer-causing chemicals do not belong in your community. Tell the company that it is no longer welcome.

· Investigate. Significant, sustained exposure to ethylene oxide has been proven to cause these cancers in humans: myeloma; lymphocytic leukemia; non-Hodgkins lymphoma; and breast cancer. If you have lived near Sterigenics and have been diagnosed with one of these cancers, ask your doctor to help you understand whether your illness might have been caused by exposure to ethylene chloride.

· Sue. Our society doesn't like lawsuits. Understandable. But anyone who has been made seriously ill by toxic exposure--if fortunate enough to still be alive--probably needs money just to survive. Also, money is often the only language that polluters understand. Sometimes in my cases, I have learned that the polluter knew years ago of technology that could have protected area families, but was too cheap to spend the money on it. When that happens, the polluter needs to pay for that, and other polluters need to see that happen. So they have a dollars and cents reason to stop risking their neighbors' health.

If I can help you in any way, please email me at smc@collinslaw.com, or call 630 527-1595, ext. 221. For more information on the ethylene oxide in Willowbrook please read our air pollution blog.

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