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NBC 5 anchor sues Sterigenics, links company’s emissions to his rare blood disease

TV journalist Rob Stafford received a bone marrow transplant after he was diagnosed in 2017. Two years later, after a federal report outlining the company’s hazardous emissions, Stafford connected the dots.

NBC 5 anchor Rob Stafford
NBC 5

Veteran Chicago television newsman Rob Stafford filed a lawsuit Friday alleging that toxic chemicals emitted by Willowbrook-based Sterigenics caused a rare blood disease that he was diagnosed with in 2017.

Stafford — an anchor with NBC 5 — “unwittingly inhaled” ethylene oxide that was emitted by Sterigenics during the 24 years he lived in Hinsdale and the nearly two decades he was a member of a sports club in Burr Ridge.

Both suburbs border Willowbrook, where Sterigenics has sterilized medical instruments for decades.

Last summer, the United States Department of Health and Human Services issued a report about Sterigenics emissions.

Shortly after the report, Stafford “became aware of it and then, for the first time, was able to realize that his amyloidosis could be the result of exposure to Sterigenics’ emissions,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed in Cook County.

“From there he went and talked to doctors who said, ‘Yes you’re right, what you have was caused by these emissions,’ ” said Stafford’s attorney, Nicholas J. Motherway.

Reached Monday, Stafford said the suit has not caused a conflict at NBC 5, which has reported on Sterigenics.

“I haven’t been involved in coverage since I first started thinking about this several months ago,” he said, adding that he kept his bosses apprised of the situation.

When asked for a comment on the suit, Stafford said: “I’m going to let the lawsuit speak for itself.”

Rob Stafford, July 21 2017.
Provided photo

The suit claims Sterigenics “with an utter indifference or conscious disregard for the safety of the public, including the plaintiff, caused the emission of a known carcinogenic, ethylene oxide, into the atmosphere despite their knowledge that the emissions created a clear and present danger to the health of members of the public.”

In an emailed statement, a company spokesman said: “Sterigenics sympathizes with anyone who is battling illness. Sterigenics also is confident that its Willowbrook facility is not responsible for causing illness. The company operates safely to control and contain ethylene oxide emissions and has consistently complied with applicable regulations and has historically outperformed what the law requires in controlling our emissions. We intend to vigorously defend against claims asserting that Sterigenics caused injury to Illinois citizens.”

In February, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency shut down the facility after air quality monitoring recorded spikes of ethylene oxide in surrounding neighborhoods.

Stafford was diagnosed with the blood disease in 2017 and since then has taken time off his job to receive a bone marrow transplant.

“Rob’s doing well, he’s been in remission for a year and a half ... but he still receives treatment,” Motherway said.

The lawsuit accuses Sterigenics of negligence, willful and wanton conduct and ultra-hazardous activity. It seeks damages in excess of $50,000.

Stafford’s suit is separate from 32 other lawsuits against Sterigenics that were filed last week in Cook County.