A group of former teachers from suburban Chicago who were all stricken with cancer have launched a lawsuit blaming a nearby industrial plant which released carcinogenic chemicals into the air for decades.
The plaintiffs taught at Hinsdale South High School in Willowbrook, Illinois, located less than a mile from the facility belonging to embattled medical supply sterilization company Sterigenics.
The plant used ethylene oxide gas to sterilize millions of pieces of medical equipment from the time it opened its doors in 1984 until February 2019.
It suspended its operations in the face of mounting legal claims from residents accusing the company of releasing cancer-causing fumes into the air.
This group of former teachers from Willowbrook, Illinois, are suing the embattled medical supply sterilization company Sterigenics, blaming their breast and blood cancers on the plant’s use of ethylene oxide
The plant opened its doors in 1984 and finally closed in September 2019 in the face of mounting pressure from environmental activists
The facility used ethylene oxide, which has long been linked to cancer, to sterilize millions of pieces of medical equipment over the decades
Five of the retired teachers were diagnosed with breast cancer, and a sixth, Margaret Eskey Erdmanis, was diagnosed with terminal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
‘I may not see next Christmas,’ Erdmanis told CBS This Morning correspondent Anna Werner during an interview that aired Friday.
Erdmanis, Rose Keppler, Carol Tufo, Jeannie Debroeck and Peg Vahldieck said they had never heard of ethylene oxide while working at the school.
‘Many of us taught with our windows wide open in the spring, in the fall,’ Vahldieck said.
Over time, the women said they started noticing the growing number of their co-workers who were stricken with cancer.
The teachers’ lawsuit, filed on Thursday in Cook County Circuit Court, brings the total number of complaints brought against Sterigenics to approximately 85, according to a report by Medical Design & Outsourcing, a medical device industry news site.
Experts have known since the 1940s that ethylene oxide, which is used to sterilize half of all medical supplies in the US – some 20 billion devices each year – could be linked to cancers.
Steringenics vehemently defended itself in a statement to CBS News, saying that it is ‘confident that it is not responsible’ for causing cancers,’ and that is has complied and even exceeded environmental regulations standards.
Attorney Shawn Collins, who represents the Illinois teachers in the lawsuit, told CBS he has obtained a letter that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency sent to Sterigenics’ former owner before the plant’s opening in 1984, warning him that ethylene oxide emissions from its yet-to-be-constructed sterilizers could be ‘several magnitudes higher than desirable.’
The plant is located less than a mile from Hinsdale South High School where the six plaintiffs worked as teachers
Over time, the women (pictured in their younger days) said they started noticing the growing number of their co-workers at the school who were stricken with cancer
‘I’ve never seen a situation where before a company even opened its doors it was told, “If you do what you say you want to do, you’re really risking the health of your neighbors,” and then it went ahead and did it anyway,’ Collins said.
Sterigenics announced in September that it will not be reopening its Willowbrook facility, blaming ‘inaccurate and unfounded claims regarding Sterigenics and the unstable legislative and regulatory landscape in Illinois.’
In August, nearly three dozen people sued Sterigenics, claiming fumes from ethylene oxide have damaged their health.
The state EPA closed the plant in February, finding that air sampling by town officials and the federal EPA consistently found high outdoor ambient levels of ethylene oxide.
Federal regulators consider the gas a carcinogen. Sterigenics, in the past, has said ethylene oxide is the only process to sterilize medical instruments that is federally approved.
Illinois House Republican leader, Rep. Jim Durkin, has been leading a fight against the company’s effort to continue operations outside Chicago. The Legislature is also considering measures that would phase out use of ethylene oxide except in less populated areas.
‘Sterigenics got the message that we were never going to let them reopen their doors and poison our communities again,’ Durkin said in a statement at the time.
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and local officials in July reached an agreement with Sterigenics that would have allowed the plant to reopen after additional emission capture and control equipment was installed.
Sterigenics also agreed to fund $300,000 in community projects designed in coordination with the state to benefit the environment and the local community.
When that agreement was announced, company President Philip Macnabb said resolution of the matter puts the company a step closer to resuming the work of sterilizing vital medical products and devices for patients in Illinois and beyond.
Protest organizer Neringa Zymancius of Darian leads the protesters in a chant in front of the Oak Brook headquarters of Sterigenics on September 14, 2018
Sterigenics is a division of Ohio-based Sotera Health LLC, which provides safety services to the medical device, pharmaceutical, tissue and food industries.
Ethylene oxide has been listed on the federal list of carcinogens as ‘reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen’ since 1985, according to a statement from Collins. In 2000, that listing was changed to ‘known to be a human carcinogen.’
In 2016, the EPA released a new assessment of ethylene oxide that concluded that it was 30 times more likely to cause cancer than previously believed.
‘EtO is unsafe at any level,’ Collins said in the release. ‘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.’
Besides Sterigenics, there are more than 100 similar companies around the US that use ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment.
In November, residents of the Atlanta suburb of Covington called on the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to investigate cases of cancer near the Becton, Dickinson and Co sterilization plant.