News broke this month that a senior official in the Trump administration instructed Chicago-based environmental regulators not to investigate the Sterigenics medical sterilization plant in suburban Willowbrook for charges that it released cancer-causing ethylene oxide into the air, according to a report from the EPA inspector general.
Ethylene oxide is a volatile, easily absorbed chemical added to the federal list of carcinogens in 1985. The Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that exposure to even small concentrations can cause cancer.
As a law firm representing individuals and families whose lives were impacted by this lack of oversight, we were deeply disturbed by the news. Simply put, the Environmental Protection Agency instructed its Chicago office to hold off investigating the Willowbrook plant and two other Sterigenics plants in Lake County. Trump officials literally stopped EPA career engineers from enforcing the U.S. Clean Air Act.
600 New Lawsuits Filed
In August 2020, Smith LaCien LLP was one of several law firms to file 600 new lawsuits in the Circuit Court of Cook County on behalf of these families, bringing the total number of cases filed to about 700.
Our founding partners Todd A. Smith, co-lead counsel in the litigation, and Brian LaCien, said that Sterigenics had known of ethylene oxide’s carcinogenic effects since 1984. “Sterigenics did nothing, even though the area near the company was heavily populated with families, homes, schools and businesses,” they said. “The lawsuits are indicative of the highly toxic nature of the emissions and the large number of people whose lives have been affected physically, emotionally and financially.”
Sterigenics Closes Plant
Sterigenics finally closed its Willowbrook facility in 2019 after the EPA listed the town and surrounding neighborhoods as among those having the highest cancer risks in the U.S.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, was among the critics of the ethylene oxide investigation and had asked the EPA’s inspector general to investigate possible political interference.