In just the past three years, Illinois residents have seen and been the victims of an overwhelming number of chemical spills and environmental disasters raising serious health concerns. Those concerns, though, don’t always result in immediate health effects. After all, some of the most fatal and serious diseases caused by chemical exposures—like cancer—are latent, meaning they take time to develop and should be tested for and monitored for early detection and treatment. While some states’ court systems have allowed for the recovery of the expenses of such testing and monitoring before any physical symptoms or injury, others—like Illinois—have denied it.
But the door isn’t closed yet. Because where the courts say no, our elected legislators and governor in Springfield can step in with commonsense laws to protect the health of Illinois residents. Now is the time to do so before another environmental disaster happens and leaves communities bearing the costs of their irresponsible neighbors’ mistakes.
In essence, medical monitoring legislation would give Illinois courts the ability to establish a program overseen by an administrator and advised by medical professionals allowing victims of environmental disasters to obtain testing with the goal of tracking and more effectively treating latent health conditions linked to preventable chemical exposure.
Below are but a few examples of toxic chemical exposures events that have recently occurred in Illinois:
- In 2018, it was found that a number of companies in suburban Chicago communities had been emitting ethylene oxide (EtO), a known human carcinogen, for decades. Sterigenics had been using the chemical in Willowbrook since 1984. Various companies in Gurnee and Waukegan had been doing the same. Since that time, hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against the companies for the birth defects and fertility complications, including miscarriages. However, the vast majority of the claims are for cancers that have emerged over the ensuing decades—some taking as long as 20 to 30 years to develop.
- In 2019, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of a woman from Union, Illinois after it was discovered that chemical plants near her home had been emitting and contaminating local groundwater with organic compounds like trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE) since the 1970s. More lawsuits, along with hers, allege cancer as a result of exposure to the chemicals.
- In 2019, a spill of anhydrous ammonia in Beach Park resulted in 40 people being hospitalized with seven in critical condition from breathing in the toxic gas. Since that time, more than 50 people have filed personal injury lawsuits for the immediate health effects, mainly respiratory injuries.
- In June 2021, the Chemtool plant in in Rockton, Illinois exploded releasing a number of compounds into the air, including hydrogen cyanide. More concerning was the process used to contain the ensuing fire where private contractors—hired by the owner—used firefighting foam, which is known to contain perfluorooctanoic acid (PFAS), also known as a “forever chemical” due to its longevity in the environment and the human body. It has also been linked to cancer. Lawsuits have been filed there for immediate health complications and also for property damage caused by the smoke and chemicals.
- Just weeks after Rockton, a lithium battery factory caught fire in Morris, Illinois with as many as 200,000 lithium batteries exploding, which forced thousands of nearby residents to evacuate their homes. Governor Pritzker issued a disaster proclamation and the Illinois EPA is currently monitoring the air quality. Investigation into potential legal claims for residents is ongoing.
All of these incidents raise questions about why these companies have recklessly situated themselves so close to residential communities: homes, schools, daycare centers, churches, and parks. Some companies, like Sterigenics in Willowbrook, knew from the day they opened their doors that this was the case—in fact, they mapped out the distances to neighborhoods in their initial facility plats.
The simple, responsible step for these companies using hazardous chemicals would be to relocate to more remote sites where the threat to human health and life are nonexistent.
But, for those that insist on operating in such close proximity to their neighbors—many times without ever alerting them to the dangers of their business—they take on a certain responsibility. When chemical spills, plant explosions, or other contaminations take place, health and lives are put at risk.
Those at risk who learn of these exposures react predictably. They become fearful. They begin researching. They begin seeking out medical opinions. They want testing to ensure they and their loved ones are safe.
But why should those in the community—terrified of cancer and other latent diseases—be the ones bearing the cost for such testing? Shouldn’t it fall on those responsible for the exposure in the first place?
Many states’ courts, including Florida, California, Arizona, and New Jersey, already allow for medical monitoring lawsuits, which grants some form of recovery of the medical expenses related to testing for diseases after exposures to hazardous chemicals and other conditions are met. Illinois’ Supreme Court recently declined to allow the recovery of such expenses in a case involving exposure to lead in city water pipes when there are no physical injuries or symptoms present.
A medical monitoring law in Illinois would allow for creation of a program that would be funded by companies after they have been found to be negligent (acting unreasonably) or recklessly in their emitting or disposing of hazardous chemicals—as defined by groups like the World Health Organization or the USEPA—like EtO, TCE, or PFAS- and can be shown to have been a cause of elevated exposures.
A notice period would go into effect and individuals would have a certain amount of time to apply for entry into the program. Entry into the program would not prevent anyone from filing a lawsuit for immediate health concerns or down the line for a latent disease like cancer; rather, the program would solely be in place to provide for the expenses related to monitoring for early signs of those conditions.
The program would be under medical guidance so those monitoring expenses would only be eligible for reimbursement if the medical experts deemed it appropriate.
Medical monitoring would take the burden and costs of the testing off of individuals and place it on those responsible. Most importantly, it could help catch deadly diseases at their earliest stages and prevent the devastating consequences so many families have had to endure due to environmental pollution and exposure to hazardous chemicals.
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