Government lawsuit alleges air pollution violations at Sterigenics

Attorney General Lisa Madigan and DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin filed suit Tuesday against Sterigenics U.S. LLC, alleging air pollution violations due to the release of the toxic chemical ethylene oxide, or EtO, at its Willowbrook plant.

In addition to filing suit, Madigan and Berlin called on lawmakers to address the public health impacts from use of the chemical.

The suit, filed in DuPage County Circuit Court, includes one count of causing, threatening or allowing air pollution and one count of maintaining a common law public nuisance, alleging Sterigenics poses an unreasonable and substantial risk to public health and welfare and the environment.

The issue has played a key role in the Nov. 6 election campaign, with Gov. Bruce Rauner and state agencies taking heat for not informing people promptly about risks from exposure to the chemical used to sterilize medical equipment.

The lawsuit seeks to ban Sterigenics from further air pollution violations and seeks an operating or emission limit that fully protects human health and the environment. If the court finds that there is no safe level of EtO emissions in the community, Madigan and Berlin ask that the court ban the company from all EtO emissions.

"For too long, Sterigenics emitted a dangerous, toxic chemical into the air putting the public's health at risk," Madigan said in a written statement. "In addition to filing our lawsuit, I urge the General Assembly to pass legislation to ban or greatly restrict the use of ethylene oxide in Illinois."

A written statement provided by Sterigenics says the company is prepared to "vigorously defend" against the lawsuit. Any disruption, they say, would seriously undermine the ability to proceed with scheduled surgeries and procedures and would put patients' lives at risk.

"Sterigenics is disappointed that the Illinois Attorney General has chosen to assert 'air pollution' and 'public nuisance' claims against the company's Willowbrook facility," the statement reads. "The lawsuit filed today expressly recognizes that Sterigenics has operated, and continues to operate, well within the limits of its permit and the regulations. Any action brought against a business operating well within regulatory limits sets an extremely bad precedent."

Berlin said residents' health must come first.

"My office will not sit idly by while our residents are exposed to a noxious gas categorized by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as an agent 'carcinogenic to humans' as is alleged in this case," Berlin wrote. "We are alleging that since at least 2006, through July of this year, the defendant, Sterigenics U.S., LLC, allowed the release of ethylene oxide gas into the atmosphere dangerously close to a densely populated residential area with nearly 20,000 people living within one mile of the alleged release. The issue of clean air is not negotiable."

Sterigenics and its use of EtO came under scrutiny after the U.S. EPA updated its assessment of the risk posed by EtO emissions. In a December 2016 report, the EPA classified EtO as a known human carcinogen and more dangerous than it had previously classified the chemical.

Based on that new evaluation of EtO's risks, in August 2018, the EPA released the 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment report. That report provides information on the cancer risks from breathing air with toxic chemicals.

As a result of the Sterigenics plant's emissions, the NATA report identified Willowbrook as a community exposed to high and unsafe levels of EtO.

In December 2017, as the EPA was preparing the report, it contacted Sterigenics to raise the issue of the plant's emission of EtO. Before the release of the NATA report in July 2018, Sterigenics installed new pollution controls at its Willowbrook site to reduce the amount of EtO emissions.

Sterigenics, with IEPA and U.S. EPA oversight, has since performed new stack testing that analyzed emissions at the site.

According to Sterigenics, that testing indicated that no EtO was detected at or above the limit of the detection equipment, which is 0.10 parts per million. The EPA is analyzing the results of that testing.

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The Sterigenics building in Willowbrook. Photo courtesy of ABC 7 Chicago
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