Six women who worked in a suburban Chicago high school are suing Sterigenics, alleging the sterilization company’s ethylene oxide emissions caused them to develop cancer.
The plaintiffs are just a few of several Willowbrook, Illinois residents and Hinsdale South High School personnel who have developed cancer over the years at alarming rates. Although they suspected something wasn’t right, teachers at the high school used to tell each other not to drink the water. They never knew that the Sterigenics plant less than a mile away was releasing tons of a highly carcinogenic gas used to sterilize prepackaged disposable medical equipment.
One of the teachers told CBS Chicago that many of the teachers would keep the classroom windows wide open during the spring and fall, completely unaware of the invisible ethylene oxide emissions that spewed from the Sterigenics plant for more than three decades.
One of the teachers, who is suffering from an incurable form of blood cancer, said five people in her department developed cancer. Another plaintiff who is battling breast cancer said there were six in her department.
“In our building there’s probably 35 to 40 of my fellow teachers who have cancer,” Jeannie Conrad-Debroeck, one of the former teachers, told Chicago’s WGNTV Channel 9. “We’ve lost seven to 10 of my friends who were teachers to breast and brain cancer.”
The teachers worked at Hinsdale South High School mostly in the ’80s and ’90s and had no family history of cancer, according to WGNTV.
It was just last year that news broke of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) analysis finding ethylene oxide to be many times more harmful than previously thought. The agency had previously warned state health departments of its findings, but residents of the affected communities remained in the dark.
In February, The Intercept reported on the ethylene oxide hazards in A Tale of Two Toxic Cities, essentially breaking the news for the first time to residents of Willowbrook and other communities across the U.S. about the ethylene oxide threat.
One of the teachers suing Sterigenics told CBS Chicago that she is “as mad as can be” about being left in the dark. “I’m worried about the people that do not know. They need to know your health is at risk.”
Another emphasized that ethylene oxide emissions aren’t just an issue affecting Willowbrook. “It’s a national issue, and people are unknowingly being exposed without having to be.”
The lawsuit is one of several lodged against Sterigenics and other sterilizing facilities since the public became aware of ethylene oxide emissions and their devastating effects on human health.
Sterigenics told CBS News in a statement that it’s “confident that it is not responsible for causing” cancers and that it has “consistently complied with and outperformed applicable regulations.” But cancer rates in communities near sterilization plants are troublingly high and the EPA’s latest research shows that ethylene oxide regulations have been grossly inadequate for decades.
A lawyer representing the six women told CBS that documents show Sterigenics knew the risks it was dealing with when it built its Willowbrook facility. In 1984, the Illinois EPA told Sterigenics that its ethylene oxide emissions would be drastically higher “than desirable” based on the plant’s design, but the company forged ahead anyway, according to the complaint.
Sterigenics permanently closed its Willowbrook operations amid the public outcry there. The company continues to operate several other plants in the U.S., including one in Smyrna, Georgia, that has also closed. However, that plant is expected to reopen after the company completes anti-emissions upgrades and protocols.