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Medical sterilization firm ordered to pay breast cancer survivor $363 million

The company's sterilization plant in DuPage County, Illinois, exposed thousands of nearby residents to ethylene oxide, a known carcinogen.

CHICAGO (CN) — A Cook County jury on Monday ordered medical technology firm Sterigenics, its parent company Sotera Health and food manufacturer Griffith Foods International to pay $363 million to an Illinois breast cancer survivor.

Following a five-week trial and a full day of deliberations, the jury found the companies were responsible for exposing Susan Kamuda and thousands of other residents of DuPage County to a carcinogenic gas known as ethylene oxide.

Kamuda's suit represented over 700 other consolidated cases. The jury ordered the companies to pay her $38 million in compensatory damages, plus another $325 million in punitive damages for polluting the local area with the toxic gas. Sterigenics took the the lion's share of the penalty, $220 million, while Sotera Health was ordered to pay $100 million and Griffith Foods another $5 million.

“[Sterigenics] did not treat EtO like a carcinogen, they treated it like an ATM,” Kamuda's attorney Patrick Salvi II, of the law firm Salvi, Schostok & Pritchard, said during trial. “They consistently underplayed their EtO use in reports to regulators so they could fly under the radar and continue making money off this toxic operation. They were paying their executives hundreds of millions of dollars, all while Sue and her neighbors were unknowingly being exposed to this insidious chemical.”

The ethylene oxide was emitted from Sterigenics' sterilization plant in the Chicago suburb of Willowbrook, built by Griffith Foods in the early 1980s. The plant used the gas to sterilize medical devices and surgical tools from 1984 to its shuttering in 2019, and while the process allowed for various materials to be sterilized at low temperatures, ethylene oxide emissions into the air of nearby communities increased the local cancer rate. As late as 2016, the plant was emitting over 4,000 pounds of ethylene oxide annually.

Kamuda, a Willowbrook resident who lives less than half a mile from the shuttered Sterigenics facility, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. She filed her complaint in Cook County in September 2018, after learning from a report prepared that year by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that said those living near the Sterigenics facility faced an elevated cancer risk due to the ethylene oxide emissions.

The 2018 report was based in part on the Environmental Protection Agency's 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment which found the Willowbrook census tract in DuPage County to have the highest cancer risk in Illinois and the 19th highest cancer risk in the U.S. A separate study by the Illinois Department of Public Health found that between 2014 and 2018, DuPage had the second-highest cancer incidence rate in Illinois, behind only Cook County.

Willowbrook residents fought for years to shutter Sterigenics' facility, which also earned the ire of multiple Illinois politicians. In February 2019, Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker's administration shut the plant down amid mounting pressure from local activists and the accompanying litigation in state courts. Despite a brief reopening in May 2019, Sterigenics announced that September that it would not be renewing its lease on the plant.

In a 2019 press release that is no longer available on Sterigenics' website, the company said that "inaccurate and unfounded claims regarding Sterigenics and the legislative regulatory landscape in Illinois have created an environment in which it is not prudent to maintain these critical sterilization operations.”

On Monday following the jury's verdict, Sterigenics maintained the allegations against it were unfounded.

“We do not believe the jury verdict in this matter reflects the evidence presented in court. Sterigenics is evaluating the verdict and plans to challenge this decision through all appropriate process, including appeals," the company said in a statement to Courthouse News. "We will continue to vigorously defend against allegations about our ethylene oxide operations and emissions."

Kamuda’s son Brian, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2021, has also filed a lawsuit against Sterigenics. His case will go to trial at a later date.

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