Lawsuits filed against medical supply sterilization plant linked to increased cancer rates

Thirty-two people are suing Sterigenics, claiming the emissions from its Willowbrook plant caused cancer.

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One after another they spoke — many with tears in their eyes — about the colorless, odorless gas that they say stole their good health and ruined their lives.

“They’ve known for 34 years and they willfully pumped this out in our communities ... ,” said Jeanne Hochhalter. “Nobody should have to go through anything like this.”

Hochhalter, who grew up in Burr Ridge, was one of 32 people who filed suit in the Circuit Court of Cook County this week against Sterigenics, which has a plant in Willowbrook where medical instruments are sterilized. In February, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency shut down the facility after air quality monitoring recorded spikes of the gas ethylene oxide in surrounding neighborhoods.

Hochhalter said Tuesday that the breast cancer she developed is directly related to the long-term gas release. She said she was exposed to it for a decade.

“I got breast cancer. I have no family history of it,” she said, adding she’s had to have 15 surgeries during the last six years. “It’s been hell.”

Plaintiff Trish Watt speaks about lawsuits against Sterigenics, alleging the medical equipment sterilization company has been emitting cancer-causing chemical ethylene oxide into the atmosphere, during a press conference at Staypineapple Hotel in the Loop

Plaintiff Trish Watt speaks about lawsuits against Sterigenics, alleging the medical equipment sterilization company has been emitting cancer-causing chemical ethylene oxide into the atmosphere, during a press conference at Staypineapple Hotel in the Loop.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

A spokesman for Sterigenics said the company “has consistently complied with applicable regulations.”

“In fact, the company has historically outperformed what the law requires in controlling our emissions.We believe the claims against Sterigenics lack merit, and we intend to vigorously defend against them,” the spokesman said.

In July, Sterigenics reached an agreement with the state that will allow the facility to re-open — after installing additional emission capture and control equipment at the plant.

But those who filed suit this week told reporters that the company should never be allowed to reopen.

“Unfortunately and regrettably, Sterigenics seems to be on a path back to business as usual,” said attorney Todd Smith.

Last month, Sterigenics President Philip Macnabb said in a statement that the agreement with the state “creates a path for our Willowbrook facility to resume its safe operation and includes no finding of wrongdoing on the company’s part nor the imposition of any financial penalties.”

Contributing: AP

Attorney Patrick Salvi (right) looks on as attorney Todd Smith speaks about lawsuits against Sterigenics, alleging the medical equipment sterilization company has been emitting cancer-causing chemical ethylene oxide into the atmosphere, during a press con

Attorney Patrick Salvi (right) looks on as attorney Todd Smith speaks about lawsuits against Sterigenics, alleging the medical equipment sterilization company has been emitting cancer-causing chemical ethylene oxide into the atmosphere, during a press conference at Staypineapple Hotel in the Loop, Tuesday morning.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

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