Sterigenics, and its parent company Sotera Health, have agreed to pay $408 million to hundreds of claimants to resolve ethylene oxide (EtO) cases connected to its former facility in Willowbrook, Illinois, without admitting liability. Currently, all but three of the 882 claimants have accepted the settlement.
The Willowbrook facility was closed after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) detected high concentrations of EtO in the air near the building in 2018. The EPA discovery resulted in the state issuing a seal order that closed the plant in 2019 and a wave of lawsuits by people who developed cancer after living near the site. Now colloquially known as “cancer alleys,” residents who live near EtO sterilization facilities are at higher risk of exposure to the dangerous chemical.
While it is widely used in sterilization practices, EtO is also classified as a substance that can cause certain cancers, according to the EPA, the National Toxicology Program, and the International Association of Research on Cancer. Chronic exposure to the chemical is associated with the development of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, myeloma, breast cancer, and lymphocytic leukemia. EtO is also mutagenic, meaning it can change a cell’s DNA and, because of this, children are especially susceptible to its effects.
In September 2022, the first of the 882 cases came to trial, ruling in favor of breast cancer survivor Susan Kamuda and awarding her $363 million in damages, exceeding the requested amount by her lawyers The jury ordered Sterigenics to pay $220 million, Sotera to pay $100 million, and Sotera’s corporate predecessor Griffith Foods to pay $5 million. The victory set a potentially powerful precedent, suggesting that trying the majority of the 882 cases could be exponentially expensive for the company. The second case did not see such victory, with the jury in the case of Teresa Fornek being decided in favor of Sterigenics and Sotera. While the company said it planned to appeal the $363 million guilty verdict, it seems they’ve thought it better not to risk more $363 million individual payouts in favor of a $408 million settlement that will cover 879 of the 882 additional Illinois cases. Before taxes, that would mean each case would be awarded just over $545,000 per the settlement agreement.
“We are pleased that 99.7% of the eligible claimants are participating in the settlements,” a Sotera Health spokesperson wrote in a statement to MD+DI. “The agreements explicitly state that the settlements are not to be construed as an admission of liability, and Sterigenics maintains that its Willowbrook operations did not pose a safety risk to the surrounding community. As we have done throughout our history, we will continue to operate all our facilities in compliance with applicable rules and regulations and best industry practices to ensure the safety of our employees, the communities in which we operate and patients around the world.”
The three claimants that opted out of the settlement will now proceed to pretrial discovery. This, however, does not signal the beginning of the end of Sterigenics lawsuit woes pertaining to EtO exposure. The company, according to its Q123 financial report, it’s also involved in lawsuits alleging personal injury from facility emitted EtO in Atlanta, GA, and Santa Teresa, NM.
Additionally, EPA and FDA have taken several steps to lower the emission of EtO from commercial sterilization facilities, proposing new regulations that would cut air emissions by 80% per year and opening two EtO pilot programs, respectively.