Ethylene Oxide Exposure - Consumer Justice Foundation

Ethylene Oxide Exposure

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Workers and residents exposed to ethylene oxide emissions from Sterigenics and other manufacturing and medical equipment sterilization plants may be at risk for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, breast cancer, leukemia and other cancers.

For more than three decades, residents of Willowbrook, Illinois and their loved ones have been unknowingly breathing in a cancer-causing gas called ethylene oxide, emitted by an industrial plant run by Sterigenics International. According to allegations raised in dozens of lawsuits filed by individuals and families adversely affected by the toxic ethylene oxide fumes, Sterigenics has known for decades about the potential health risks associated with ethylene oxide exposure, yet did nothing to protect the communities in which it operates from the harmful effects of the carcinogenic gas. If you or a loved one has been exposed to ethylene oxide from a Sterigenics plant or another medical equipment cleaning plant or manufacturing plant, and you have been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, breast cancer, leukemia or another serious illness, contact our consumer advocates at Consumer Justice Foundation today. We are dedicated to protecting the rights of consumers harmed by the negligent actions of others and we can put you in touch with an attorney who can help you determine whether you are eligible to file a claim.

What is Ethylene Oxide?

Ethylene oxide (EO) is a colorless, flammable gas commonly used to sterilize medical devices, cosmetics and other products that cannot be sterilized by steam. The chemical is also used to make a variety of products, from antifreeze to plastics, adhesives and detergents. Sterigenics LLC, the operator of a medical equipment cleaning plant in Willowbrook, Illinois, uses ethylene oxide to sterilize millions of medical devices every year and has been doing so since 1984. Dozens of people allegedly exposed to ethylene oxide fumes have already sued Sterigenics and other companies that operate similar sterilization plants and manufacturing plants accused of emitting ethylene oxide, alleging that exposure to the carcinogenic chemical caused them to develop cancer and other illnesses.

Link Between Ethylene Oxide Emissions and Cancer

More than 40 lawsuits have been filed against Sterigenics and other companies operating sterilization plants and manufacturing plants, by people who claim that ethylene oxide emissions from these plants have caused them or their loved ones to suffer serious side effects, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, breast cancer and other cancers. In August 2019, 32 new ethylene oxide lawsuits were filed in Cook County, Illinois pursuing damages for illnesses plaintiffs allege stem from exposure to ethylene oxide emissions from the Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook. One man who filed an ethylene oxide exposure lawsuit against Sterigenics alleges that his late wife, who ran a small business located within a few hundred feet of the medical device sterilization plant, became ill and died of breast cancer due to her proximity to the plant.

Most of the plaintiffs in the ethylene oxide litigation are residents of the neighborhood surrounding the Willowbrook Sterigenics plant or relatives of residents. According to the EPA, more than 20,000 people live within one mile of the Willowbrook Sterigenics facility, where in 2018, the cancer risk was found to be 64 times the acceptable risk limit. There are also four schools, a community park, a large shopping center and a day care facility all located near the plant. According to a 2018 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Humans Services Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR), “an elevated cancer risk exists” for residents of Willowbrook and off-site workers in the community and exposure to ethylene oxide from the Sterigenics facility poses a “public health hazard to these populations.”

Unfortunately, Willowbrook, Illinois isn’t the only area that may be affected by toxic ethylene oxide emissions. Sterigenics’ operations span 47 facilities in 13 countries, which means thousands more people may have been adversely affected by exposure to ethylene oxide gas from Sterigenics sterilization plants. And Sterigenics isn’t the only company that uses ethylene oxide for the sterilization of medical devices and other purposes. Medline Industries and Vantage Specialty Chemicals are two other companies that have been named in lawsuits filed on behalf of individuals who live near the manufacturing plants and have been diagnosed with forms of cancer, including breast cancer and leukemia.

Most of the ethylene oxide exposure lawsuits filed against Sterigenics involve cancers like non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia and breast cancer, but some have linked exposure to miscarriage, birth defects and other reproductive problems. For its part, Sterigenics claims that the company has “consistently complied with applicable regulations.” Yet the Willowbrook plant was shut down in February 2019, after the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency found excessive emissions of ethylene oxide in the surrounding neighborhoods. In July 2019, Sterigenics reached a consent agreement with the Illinois EPA to reopen in September after installing additional emission capture and control equipment. However, in September, Sterigenics announced that it would be permanently closing the Willowbrook facility amid increasing concerns about dangerous ethylene oxide emissions.

Possible Side Effects Leading to an Ethylene Oxide Lawsuit

  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Lymphocytic leukemia
  • Myeloma
  • Breast cancer
  • Miscarriage
  • Reproductive problems
  • Neurological disorders
  • Eye, nose and throat irritation
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Birth defects

Lawsuits Against Sterigenics for Cancer Side Effects

2019 – At least 11 plaintiffs are suing Sterigenics for cancer and other serious health problems allegedly caused by ethylene oxide exposure.

August 2019 – Thirty-two new lawsuits are filed against Sterigenics in Illinois over exposure to ethylene oxide emissions.

August 2019 – Four new lawsuits are filed on behalf of alleged victims of ethylene oxide exposure from Medline and Vantage manufacturing facilities in northern Illinois.

August 2019 – A Chicago news anchor files a lawsuit alleging that his rare blood disorder was caused by exposure to ethylene oxide emissions from the Sterigenics facility in Willowbrook.

Ethylene Oxide Exposure, Cancer and Regulatory Action

December 2016 – The Environmental Protection Agency’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) finds a 30-fold increase in the “adult-based inhalation [cancer] risk” associated with ethylene oxide.

August 2018 – Based on air samples from 2014, an EPA report reveals dangerous levels of ethylene oxide in the area surrounding the Sterigenics facility in Willowbrook, at three times the acceptable risk limit. Sterigenics blames the ethylene oxide levels on local construction sites, vehicle emissions and a nearby diesel generator.

August 2018 – A follow-up investigation conducted by the ATSDR using air samples from 2017 reveals that the cancer risk in Willowbrook is actually 64 times the acceptable risk limit.

February 2019 – The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency closes the Willowbrook plant after air quality monitoring identifies spikes of ethylene oxide in the neighborhoods surrounding the plant. After the plant is shut down, the detected level of ethylene oxide in the surrounding area drops by approximately 90%.

June 2019 – Illinois passes a strict new law regulating the discharge of ethylene oxide gas.

July 2019 – Sterigenics reaches a consent agreement with the Illinois EPA to reopen the Willowbrook plant in September. The agreement resolves all of the litigation between Sterigenics, the state attorney general’s office and the DuPage County state attorney’s office, with no finding of fault or liability and no penalties imposed.

July 2019 – An investigative report reveals high ethylene oxide levels near Medtech sterilization plants in Georgia.

September 2019 – Sterigenics announces that it will permanently close its Willowbrook facility.

Studies Linking Ethylene Oxide to Serious Side Effects

1985 – A report published by the EPA concludes that “Though there are no definitive, epidemiologic studies, the data are consistent with the animal data in that there seems to be a strong association between an increased risk of cancer, especially leukemia, and prolonged inhalation exposure to ethylene oxide.”

May 1991 – A study of mortality in 18,254 U.S. workers exposed to ethylene oxide at 14 plants producing sterilizing medical supplies and spices finds an “increased risk of death from hematopoietic cancer with increasing lengths of time since the first exposure to ethylene oxide” among men and women.

August 2003 – The journal Cancer Causes and Control publishes research linking breast cancer to ethylene oxide exposure in a cohort of 7,576 women employed for at least one year and exposed to ethylene oxide for an average of 10.7 years while working in commercial sterilization facilities.

December 2003 – A large epidemiological study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports positive exposure-response trends for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, myeloma and lymphocytic leukemia in a cohort of 18,235 sterilizer workers.

March 2005 – The EPA’s 2005 Guidelines for Carcinogenic Risk Assessment categorizes exposure to ethylene oxide via inhalation as “carcinogenic to humans.”

2006 – The EPA issues a report indicating that ethylene oxide exposure occurs most often in “occupations involving contact with the gas in production facilities and hospitals that sterilize medical equipment.” The agency notes that “EtO can also be inhaled by residents living near production or sterilizing/fumigating facilities.”

December 2017Toxicology Mechanisms and Methods publishes a review of the EPA’s evaluation of the inhalation carcinogenicity of ethylene oxide, concluding that “The weight of evidence from the epidemiologic, laboratory animal, and mechanistic studies supports a conclusion that EtO is carcinogenic in humans, with the strongest human evidence linking EtO exposure to lymphoid and breast cancers.”

Why We Think These Companies Should Be Held Liable for Ethylene Oxide Exposure

Companies who use dangerous products that put people exposed to the products at risk for serious health problems or death should be held accountable for their actions, and pursuing legal action against those responsible for the harm you have suffered is an important step in stopping wrongful conduct and pursuing the compensation you deserve for your losses. The ethylene oxide lawsuits currently pending in Illinois accuse Sterigenics of the following wrongful conduct:

  • Knowingly emitting ethylene oxide in the Willowbrook area for more than 30 years
  • Knowing about the carcinogenic effects of ethylene oxide exposure for decades and doing nothing to protect the community from harm
  • Failing to adequately warn residents and their loved ones about the potential health risks associated with ethylene oxide exposure
  • Having exclusive rights to an FDA-approved nitrogen dioxide sterilization process, yet failing to use the safer alternative to ethylene oxide
  • Devastating families, causing countless illnesses and deaths and decimating property values in the area
  • Placing profits over people

What should you do? If you have been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, breast cancer or another serious side effect, you should contact a lawyer as soon as possible to discuss filing an ethylene oxide exposure lawsuit.

As more and more people who lived, worked or went to school in the area surrounding the Willowbrook Sterigenics plant and other plants accused of releasing toxic ethylene oxide gas come to realize that their cancers and other side effects may have been caused by prolonged exposure to the gas, the number of lawsuits against Sterigenics and other sterilization and manufacturing companies continues to grow. Attorneys are currently working closely with individuals and families exposed to ethylene oxide from the Willowbrook Sterigenics plant and other similar plants, helping them seek justice and pursue the financial compensation they deserve for their cancers and other serious health problems. If you believe that you or someone you love has suffered cancer or another serious illness caused by exposure to carcinogenic ethylene oxide, don’t hesitate to seek qualified legal help. With an experienced personal injury attorney on your side, you may be able to recover damages for medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and other losses from the company responsible for your alleged exposure.

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