It’s a colorless, toxic gas. A US woman won $363m after years of exposure
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Photo: Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/AP
For more than 30 years, Susan Kamuda lived with her family several hundred meters away from a nondescript brick building in a small office park.
Kamuda's son Brian recalls riding his bike past the building on his way through the neighborhood; He later taught a friend how to drive in the nearby parking lot.
Neither Kamuda nor the surrounding community knew that the building housed a company spewing a colorless gas into the sky over Willowbrook, a middle-class suburban enclave southwest of Chicago. A company called Sterigenics used ethylene oxide (EtO) gas to sterilize medical devices and other products.
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Susan Kamuda, now 70, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, although she had no family history of the disease. Last year, 49-year-old Brian found out the debilitating pain he was having in his back and hips - pain he believed was caused by kidney stones - was instead stage four non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
19,000 people and four schools live within a mile radius of the facility. The Kamudas know of many others who have fallen ill, but it is only in recent years that they have come to believe there is a connection to the Sterigenics building.
Susan and Brian were prominent figures in the push to place Sterigenics in charge of disease in the community. It operates numerous other such facilities in the United States and around the world.
"The hardest part right now is waiting every three months to see how long I have to live," said Brian, who has endured multiple cycles of aggressive chemotherapy and other treatments and is being tested every few months while Doctors monitor the progress of his illness.
"In darker times, I think about how many years my life lost between the cancer and treatment," he said.
Until last week, the question of Sterigenics' guilt seemed settled. It was cemented when Susan Kamuda sued Sterigenics and was awarded $363 million by an Illinois jury — the highest jury verdict on record for a single Illinois plaintiff. Hundreds of others are also suing the company in court.
But in a striking reversal, jurors in the company's second trial on Saturday found that it was not responsible for the cancer diagnosis of another local resident, Teresa Fornek, in a lawsuit she filed against Sterigenics.
A Sterigenics facility in Covington, Georgia. Photo: John Bazemore/AP
Sterigenics said in an email that the Kamuda verdict was not based on evidence.
"We will continue to vigorously defend ourselves against allegations about our ethylene oxide activities and emissions," said a company spokesman.
The concerns about EtO are far from over.
EtO has been associated with an increased risk of cancer since the 1970s. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the greatest risk of cancer is for people who have lived near a facility that has released EtO into the air for many years.
Records show that when Sterigenics quietly moved into Willowbrook in 1984, regulators were concerned about the health risks associated with EtO. Earlier this year, Illinois environmental officials sent the company a letter warning that the facility could expose people living within a mile of the facility to levels of EtO 14 times higher than levels then considered safe.
Even so, Mayor Frank Trilla said few people thought much about Sterigenics or suspected it was pumping gas into the air.
"We had no idea," he said.
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Over the years, residents have reported all sorts of health problems.
Less than a mile from the Sterigenics building is Hinsdale South High School, where Jim Crandell and his wife Kerri Crandell taught for two decades.
In 2015, Jim's skin started breaking out with rashes and pustules. Doctors determined that the symptoms were due to chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Kerri, who taught physical education, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002. She also experienced two miscarriages and the death of a premature baby.
Crandell said teachers took note of the disproportionate number of miscarriages and breast cancer rates they experienced.
“Back then we always joked that there must be something in the water. We didn't know there was actually anything in the air - which is worse," Jim said.
Regulatory knowledge of the health risks grew over time. In 2006, the EPA officially concluded that EtO is a human carcinogen based on animal studies and a study of more than 18,000 workers at 17 sterilization facilities.
But for 10 years, while scientists reviewed those findings, the agency didn't update its standards to reflect the compound's risk. In 2016, the EPA announced that the risk of cancer in adults who breathed EtO was 30 times higher than previously thought, and changed EtO's descriptor from "probably carcinogenic to humans" to "carcinogenic to humans."
It wasn't until 2018 that the Willowbrook community learned of the potential danger when government officials released a report showing residents living near the Sterigenics facility were at an increased risk of cancer and being discharged from the facility.
The city ordered independent air tests that found airborne EtO concentrations of up to 320 micrograms per cubic meter of air outside the village police station. (According to the Agency for Toxic Substances, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control, home exposure to 2.1 micrograms of ethylene oxide per cubic meter of air over 33 years triggers an increased risk of cancer.)
Regulators found that those living in the census areas surrounding the facility face some of the highest cancer risks in the country from toxic air pollution; the risk of cancer in one census tract was more than nine times the national average.
Local residents were outraged after news broke about the risk of cancer. Participants at a community forum recall a growing sense of fear and anger as Sterigenics officials tried to downplay concerns. Residents, meanwhile, took turns telling stories about how they or their loved ones were diagnosed with cancer.
"It was the beginning of this realization for me that it's not normal to know so many people with cancer," said Lauren Kaeseberg, an area resident who lost her mother to cancer in 2010.
After allegations about Sterigenics surfaced, the community held a candlelight stroller protest to honor those who lost babies and suffered miscarriages.
Kamuda filed a lawsuit against Sterigenics in 2018, accusing the company of causing her cancer by pumping more than 1 million pounds of ethylene oxide into the air around Willowbrook. The company failed to analyze how long the chemical would remain in the air and the distance it would travel, and failed to install emission controls, their lawsuit alleged.
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She has joined the allegations of hundreds of others - including her son.
Last summer, Kamuda was the first in her community to take Sterigenics to court. Lawyers for Sterigenics, its parent company Sotera Health, and its predecessor Griffith Foods argued that Sterigenics did not release chemicals at dangerous levels and questioned the evidence that emissions from Sterigenics caused cancer in Kamuda.
But the five-week trial ended in September with a jury verdict awarding Kamuda $363 million, including $325 million in punitive damages, an amount that exceeded the amount her attorney had suggested in the closing arguments.
“It was a resounding, complete victory. No ambiguity, no compromise," said her attorney, Patrick Salvi.
But the outcome of the second case in which Sterigenics was exonerated has deepened questions about the fate of the other lawsuits. As before, Sterigenics argued that it had never emitted more than allowed and that the amount of EtO was not large enough to cause serious disease.
Brian's trial against the company is scheduled for April. Lawsuits are pending against nearly 800 other plaintiffs, and Sterigenics said it plans to defend itself against any allegations about its operations and emissions.
While their lawsuits remain in abeyance, questions swirl at other Sterigenics facilities.
In 2019, the Illinois EPA closed the Willowbrook facility due to an increased risk of cancer, and later that year Sterigenics closed it permanently.
The Crandells -- the residents who worked at a local high school -- and other members of a "Stop Sterigenics" community group are now working with communities in other states to campaign against Sterigenics and its use of EtO. The company continues to operate 48 other facilities in 13 countries and nine states in the United States.
Tony Adams, who lives less than a mile from a Sterigenics facility in suburban Atlanta, helped lead the fight in Georgia.
The Sterigenics site there has been the focus of government hearings and litigation. According to local news reports, nearly 100 people have sued the Cobb County, Georgia company, including 68 who claim they developed breast cancer as a result of their exposure to the gas.
The Atlanta-area facility briefly closed but reopened in 2020 after the company claimed its closure would exacerbate the country's shortage of medical supplies during the Covid-19 pandemic.
"It's like sipping cyanide," Adams said. “We decide how much poison we can release in our communities. You can be pro-business, but you have to play a role in choosing who you let in.”
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