Jury awards Willowbrook woman $363 million, finds Sterigenics responsible for exposing her to cancer-causing ethylene oxide

At about the same time that Sue Kamuda moved to Willowbrook during the mid-1980s, a Chicago company chose the western suburbs as the new location for its rapidly expanding business of sterilizing medical instruments, drugs, and spices.

Two lower buildings, behind retailers and restaurants on Kingery Highway, didn’t attract much attention until 2018, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revealed that people who live near them face some of the highest cancer risks in the country from toxic air pollution.

The culprit: Ethylene oxide, or EtO, an odorless gas that is pumped into fumigation chambers inside the sterilization facility and then released into nearby neighborhoods.

Kamoda, a retired school principal, suspected that she had finally found out why she had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. She had been breathing Ito for years in her home a third of a mile away.

On Monday, a jury in Cook County agreed, finding the original owner of the facility and two of the company’s successors liable for $363 million in damages for the exposure of Kamuda to poison gas. This ruling is the largest ever for a person in Illinois.

The jury decided that Sterigenics, its newest owner, should pay $220 million in punitive damages. They also imposed $100 million in penalties against parent company Sotera Health and $5 million against Griffith Foods, the current name of the original owner.

The jury decided that an additional $38 million should be paid to Kamuda for past and future loss of a normal life, emotional distress, disfigurement, and shortened life expectancy.

She is the first of more than 700 people seeking compensation from Oak Brook-based Sterigenics.

The verdict exceeded the $346 million that her attorney, Patrick Salvi II, had urged the jury to punish during his closing arguments.

“I hope this makes it easy for all of them,” Kamuda told reporters afterwards, revealing for the first time that one of her sons had cancer and had sued the company.

When asked about what robbed him of the four-year legal battle that led to Monday’s jury verdict, Kamuda called it stressful but ultimately worth it.

“Companies are not your friend,” she said. “Find a good support team to help you because you will need it.”

During a trial that lasted more than five weeks, emails and documents featured on a courtroom screen showed that companies had long known that ethylene oxide was extremely dangerous. The documents showed that companies delayed the installation of pollution control equipment and tried to undermine federal regulations that required costly improvements to sterilization facilities.

“They didn’t treat EtO as a carcinogen, they treated it like an ATM,” Salvi said.

Sterigenics and Sotera said in a statement that they may appeal the ruling.

“We do not believe that the jury’s ruling on this matter reflects the evidence presented in court,” the companies’ statement said. “We will continue to vigorously defend against allegations related to our ethylene oxide operations and emissions.”

The companies’ lawyers argued that Salvi provided no evidence that Kamoda’s breast cancer resulted from exposure to ethylene oxide. They also brought in scientists associated with the industry who tried to convince the jury that the Willowbrook facility had never posed a danger to its neighbours.

The now closed sterilization plant was built in 1984 by the company now known as Griffith Foods. In a statement, the company described its inclusion in the lawsuit as a “case of overreach” and said it had not been linked to Sterigenics in more than 20 years.

Sterigenics was taken over by Sotera Health after a series of mergers, corporate restructurings and private equity deals, including a deal brokered by a company co-founded by former Illinois Governor Bruce Rohner.

The Chicago Tribune reported in 2018 that officials in the Republican governor’s administration learned about the high cancer risk at least eight months before telling the public. He initially played down the results, then joined other elected officials who called for Willowbrook’s plant to be closed.

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Rauner’s stake in Sterigenics later became a campaign issue as he tried to be re-elected, when he was now governor. He has been outdone by JB Pritzker, a Democrat from Chicago, in opinion polls.

Sterigenics closed the plant in 2019 under pressure from community groups, local officials, state lawmakers, members of Congress and Pritzker, who banned the company at some point that year from using ethylene oxide.

After monitoring EtO concentrations in and around Willowbrook for several months, the EPA concluded that Sterigenics contamination increases the risk of cancer for people who live 25 miles away. Other suburbs with the highest risk include Darien, Burr Ridge, Hinsdale, Indian Head Park and Western Springs.

Other industrial sources of ethylene oxide around the country continue to operate legally under federal regulations that have not been updated to reflect the latest EPA assessment of the toxic gas. That could change if President Joe Biden’s administration makes good on its promises to adopt stricter restrictions on pollution from sterilizing facilities, including eight still operated by Sterigenics.

Environmental Protection Agency officials announced this month that they will hold public meetings in nearly two dozen communities where inhaling ethylene oxide from sterilizers is responsible for more than one cancer case for every 10,000 people exposed during their lifetime.

In 2018, the list included neighborhoods around the Medline Industries facility in the northern suburbs of Waukgan. Medline has since installed new pollution controls and has significantly reduced ethylene oxide emissions. EPA officials say they no longer consider the company’s pollution to pose an unacceptable health risk.

mhawthorne@chicagotribune.com

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