“The announcement that Sterigenics has decided not to reopen its Willowbrook facility, while a victory for the people fighting Sterigenics’ unsafe ethylene oxide emissions, is also a sad reminder that it should never have been allowed to operate there in the first place. For years, Sterigenics spewed its cancer-causing chemical into a neighborhood filled with schoolchildren, teachers, moms and dads who had no idea they were ever in danger. Dozens of lawsuits filed against the company claim that Sterigenics’ chemical emissions gave them cancer or, even worse, caused the death of a family member. I hope news of the company’s closing is of some solace to them, and that no community will ever again be treated as callously as they were.”
“I am disgusted, but not surprised, by the Illinois EPA’s decision to grant Sterigenics a permit to reopen. This is the same state agency that, in 1984, gave the operator of the Willowbrook plant a permit to emit ethylene oxide into the local community in quantities that the state knew posed an unacceptable cancer risk to local residents.
With this latest permit issuance, Illinois has proved once again why it cannot be trusted to protect its citizens. It seems more interested in protecting Sterigenics’ right to make a profit.
For many years, Sterigenics has spewed a very dangerous carcinogen into a residential community. It never warned the people who live and work there. Children. Parents. Students. Teachers. Youth sports team players and coaches. Workers in the local shops. It never gave them a chance to protect themselves. By these actions, Sterigenics forfeited its right to operate here.
The Collins Law Firm has filed a lawsuit against Sterigenics alleging that its client, 16-year-old Yasmeen Harrison, has battled cancer for most of her young life because of Sterigenics’ ethylene oxide emissions. According to the lawsuit, Sterigenics knowingly emitted “massive and unnecessary amounts of ethylene oxide, an invisible, odorless carcinogen” into neighboring communities, including Willowbrook, Burr Ridge, and Darien, starting in 1985 and continuing through 2019. As a result, residents like Yasmeen and her family, who lived, worked and attended school in those communities were “exposed to an unacceptably high level of ethylene oxide and therefore exposed to an unacceptably high risk of cancer”, said attorney Shawn Collins. Moreover, Sterigenics ignored an IL EPA engineer’s 1984 letter alerting them to the cancer risk associated with ethylene oxide exposure and forged ahead with the facility without warning neighbors of the danger.
The lawsuit, filed in the Circuit Court of Cook County, was brought on behalf of Yasmeen Harrison, who was diagnosed in 2005 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) as a toddler. But that was just the beginning of her arduous journey. After a brief period in remission, the cancer returned in 2007. To combat this recurrence, Yasmeen underwent a bone marrow transplant, but then contracted another cancer—myelodysplastic syndrome– in 2009. After a second bone marrow transplant and rocky recovery, things seemed to be looking up, when it was discovered in 2017 that Yasmeen had yet another cancer. This time it was kidney cancer. Surgery followed and today that cancer is in remission. The lawsuit alleges that Yasmeen’s exposure to Sterigenics’ ethylene oxide as an infant, as well as her mother’s exposure while pregnant, contributed to her cancer.
“Helping people like Yasmeen who have been irreparably harmed by the reckless and wrongful conduct of polluters is the reason we practice law. We believe that the lawsuits we are filing will bring justice to Yasmeen, her family and the other families who are suffering from devastating illnesses. Yasmeen has been so brave and tenacious throughout her long battle; it is now time for us to take up the mantle and fight for her.” said Shawn Collins, partner at The Collins Law Firm.
The Collins Law Firm has filed eleven lawsuits against Sterigenics alleging their clients contracted cancer after being exposed to Sterigenics’ ethylene oxide emissions for years. According to the lawsuits, Sterigenics knowingly emitted the cancer-causing gas starting in 1985 and continuing through 2019. As a result, residents who lived or worked in the nearby communities, including Willowbrook, Burr Ridge, and Darien, were exposed to a carcinogen that raised their cancer risk many times above the national average, according to a government report. Moreover, Sterigenics operated their facility without apparent concern for the health of nearby residents and without warning them of the potential danger.
“Our law firm is dedicated to protecting people from reckless and wrongful conduct by corporate polluters. It is our expectation that these lawsuits will bring justice to these families whose lives have been devastated by catastrophic illness. We also hope that, when Sterigenics’ behavior over the years is exposed publicly through our lawsuits, the State of Illinois will finally shut the company down permanently.” said Shawn Collins, partner at The Collins Law Firm.
The lawsuits, filed in the Circuit Court of Cook County on Monday, are brought on behalf of our clients who have suffered from or lost a loved one to, breast cancer, multiple myeloma, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, and T cell lymphoma. All of the plaintiffs lived for a number of years within close proximity to the Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook, Illinois. This plant, which emitted ethylene oxide for years, is within a mile of 20,000 people and four schools.
The Sterigenics facility in Willowbrook, IL has been using ethylene oxide (EtO), a known human carcinogen, to sterilize medical and other equipment since the 1980s. Recently, U.S. EPA and the Village of Willowbrook tested the air around the Sterigenics facility and found alarming amounts of this chemical in the air near schools and other locations by the facility. These dangerous EtO levels prompted Illinois EPA to issue a Seal Order that shut down sterilization operations and use of EtO at Sterigenics on February 15, 2019. Sterigenics has not been permitted to use or emit EtO since.
After the Seal Order was issued, the community and their elected officials did not rest. They continued to fight to ensure that EtO cannot bring any more harm to their neighborhood or to other neighborhoods across Illinois. As a result of their advocacy, the Illinois Legislature passed Senate Bill 1852, which went into effect on June 21, 2019. This new law is known as the Matt Haller Act and was named in honor of a 45-year-old Willowbrook resident who passed away earlier this year from stomach cancer. Haller had lived approximately 1 mile from the Sterigenics plant and advocated for its closure. The Matt Haller Act is purported to impose the strongest restrictions on ethylene oxide use in the nation.
Despite the Matt Haller Act, the Seal Order and the community’s fight to live in an EtO-free environment, Sterigenics has not stopped pushing to emit more carcinogenic EtO into the community’s air. Just days after Governor Pritzker signed the Matt Haller Act, Sterigenics asked Illinois EPA for a construction permit which would allow it to operate and use EtO under new conditions, such as a taller emissions stack. Sterigenics filed this construction permit application on June 24, 2019.
Starting in 1984, the Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook, IL consistently emitted a chemical known as ethylene oxide into the air. These air emissions continued until February 15, 2019 when Illinois EPA ordered Sterigenics to stop operating because it found that Sterigenics’ emissions posed a danger to public health.
Ethylene oxide is a colorless, flammable, gas which Sterigenics uses to sterilize medical and other equipment. In the summer of 2018, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (a branch of the CDC), alerted the Willowbrook community that there is an elevated cancer risk for residents and those who work in the community near the Sterigenics plant. Using air samples taken by EPA in commercial and residential areas within a mile of the plant, ATSDR estimated that Sterigenics’ ethylene oxide emissions were making nearby residents 64 times more likely to get cancer.
On May 29, 2019 U.S. EPA hosted an Open House and Community Meeting to provide an update on its work to better understand the ethylene oxide emissions from the Sterigenics facility. At the meeting, U.S. EPA updated the community on the air testing it conducted over 49 days between mid-November 2018 and the end of March 2019. The Agency tested the air at 8 locations within a couple miles of the facility for ethylene oxide. The graph below shows that the levels of ethylene oxide that U.S. EPA found in the air while the plant was still operating dropped significantly after the plant was forced to close. This drop in emissions led U.S. EPA to conclude that the facility is responsible for a significant amount of the ethylene oxide detected.
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.
Hundreds of Willowbrook residents filled a standing-room-only meeting last night. They came to hear their government explain whether their health is in danger due to the ethylene oxide pollution that a local company, Sterigenics, has been belching into their neighborhood for the last 30 years.
Ethylene oxide is a nasty carcinogen. But the people of Willowbrook had no idea that such a chemical even existed, let alone that it had been in their neighborhood for decades. Until last week.
Sterigenics has known–probably since the 1980’s–that it was causing ethylene oxide pollution in Willowbrook. So did government, or at least it should have known. Its job was to know. Hard to say what is worse: the government knowing about the ethylene oxide pollution for many years and doing nothing to protect the people of Willowbrook, or the government not knowing anything about the problem until just now.
The Chicago Tribune recently reported on a new federal study by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) – released just last week – that highlights a danger to Willowbrook residents who live near Sterigenics International, at 830 Midway Drive and 7775 S. Quincy St., in Willowbrook, IL. According to the report, the people living near this facility face a higher cancer risk from toxic air pollution than much of the rest of the country.
Why? Apparently, Sterigenics uses and stores a toxic gas called “ethylene oxide” to sterilize medical equipment, and has been releasing that cancer causing chemical into the air since at least 1995.
Ethylene oxide has been listed on the federal list of carcinogens as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” since 1985. In 2000, that listing was revised to “known to be a human carcinogen”. Finally, in 2016, the US EPA – after much delay – released a new assessment of the toxic gas that concluded that ethylene oxide was even more dangerous than originally thought.