Editorial: Lessons from the Sterigenics case. Why allow harmful emissions so close to homes and schools?
For years, everyone who lived around the Sterigenics plant in southwest suburban Willowbrook — children, their parents, the elderly — could not see or smell the toxic danger in the air.
More than 19,000 people lived within a mile of the facility, and four schools and a day care center operated within that radius. Whether playing on school playgrounds or relaxing at backyard barbecues, those Illinoisans were unaware of the vast amounts of ethylene oxide the plant would regularly emit. The colorless, odorless compound is a known carcinogen, and it was used at the plant to sterilize medical instruments, pharmaceuticals and spices.
Between 1993 and 2017, the Tribune has reported, the plant released 254,000 pounds of the chemical into the air.
Community pressure and dogged reporting by the Tribune’s Michael Hawthorne about the plant’s emissions eventually led to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s decision to ban the plant’s use of ethylene oxide in early 2019. Later that year, Sterigenics shut down its operations in Willowbrook.
The story doesn’t end there, however. Last week a Cook County jury found that Sterigenics, its parent company, Sotera, and Sterigenics’ predecessor at the plant, Griffith Foods, are liable for exposing Willowbrook breast cancer survivor Sue Kamuda to ethylene oxide, and awarded Kamuda $363 million in damages.