Lawsuit blames Sterigenics for teenager's bouts with cancer
Diagnosed with leukemia at age 2, Yasmeen Harrison has routed cancer four times.
The 16-year-old is not letting illness derail her plans. "I want to be a nurse," Yasmeen explained from her Willowbrook home.
For years, parents Ivan and Judy Harrison were mystified by the back-to-back cancers afflicting their daughter.
A lawsuit filed Tuesday in Cook County claims it's no coincidence. The lawsuit accuses Sterigenics of negligence by "emitting massive and unnecessary amounts of ethylene oxide, an invisible, odorless carcinogen" into neighborhoods in Willowbrook, Burr Ridge, Darien and Hinsdale.
Sterigenics says it is not responsible for diseases affecting Yasmeen and 32 others who also have filed lawsuits this month, including WMAQ-Channel 5 news anchor Rob Stafford, who contracted the blood disease amyloidosis when he lived in Hinsdale.
"What's happening here is humans are being exposed to unacceptably high level of ethylene oxide and therefore exposed to an unacceptably high risk of cancer," Naperville attorney Shawn Collins said.
The state ordered Sterigenics to close in February after the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in 2018 found an elevated cancer risk for people living near the company's Willowbrook facility, which sterilizes medical equipment. Prolonged exposure to ethylene oxide, a colorless, flammable gas, can cause cancers such as leukemia, according to the National Cancer Institute.
"Sterigenics sympathizes with anyone who is battling illness," a spokesman for the Oak Brook-based company said.
"Sterigenics also is confident that its Willowbrook facility is not responsible for causing illness. The company operates safely to control and contain ethylene oxide emissions, has consistently complied with applicable regulations and has historically outperformed what the law requires in controlling our emissions."
A Hinsdale South High School student, Yasmeen is small for her age but has a luminous smile and dark curls. She loves anime, pizza, making pottery and "My Little Pony." Her favorite pony is "FlutterShy," a character who's a bit reserved but possesses inner strength.
When bruises appeared on their healthy toddler's body in October 2005, her parents were puzzled, then anxious when her pediatrician ordered blood tests. Soon after, "they said she had leukemia cells and needed to be admitted to hospital right away," Ivan Harrison recalled in an interview. "It was a big shock."
Yasmeen's diagnosis -- acute lymphoblastic leukemia -- was treated with chemotherapy, and the family hoped for the best. But in November 2007, the cancer returned.
She went to Children's Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee for a bone-marrow transplant, spending holidays and birthdays away from home.
"She couldn't understand why she couldn't be at home with her family and why this was happening to her," Ivan Harrison said.
"It made me sad," Yasmeen said.
But she plastered the hospital room with art and stickers, and played doctor to her stuffed animals. "The nurses called her the crafting queen," Ivan said.
After the transplant, Yasmeen rallied, but other complications followed. She contracted myelodysplastic syndrome, another type of cancer, in March 2009 and received a second bone marrow transplant.
This time her recovery was fraught; Yasmeen's body rejected the cells, causing internal hemorrhaging.
"This was the closest in this whole journey we thought she might not make it," Harrison said. Doctors tried an experimental medication as a last resort, and Yasmeen recovered.
In February 2017, she suffered another blow -- kidney cancer. But after successful surgery, the cancer remains in remission.
The family has "been failed on a lot of levels," Ivan said. "The company and the government failed us," he added, referring to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
The IEPA issued an operating permit for Sterigenics in 1984 despite one engineer's assessment its emissions process was unsafe, said Collins, who has handled numerous class-action environmental cases, including one against the now-closed Lockformer plant in Lisle.
In the case of the ethylene oxide emissions, Willowbrook residents "had a right to know," Collins said. "That's where they lived and raised kids ... all the while exposing themselves to something that's very dangerous with no chance to protect themselves."
Sterigenics disputes that narrative. "We intend to vigorously defend against claims asserting that Sterigenics caused injury to Illinois citizens," a spokesman for the company said.
In the meantime, a DuPage County judge is expected to rule soon on whether to let the plant reopen under a controversial proposed consent order with the Illinois attorney general that includes strict emissions controls.
WMAQ's Stafford is back at work after a six-month leave of absence to undergo a bone-marrow transplant and chemotherapy in 2017.
Yasmeen returned this month to Hinsdale South as a sophomore, where she loves consumer studies, an anime club and a chance to be a budding entrepreneur.
"Lemonade, coffee, iced coffee, hot chocolate ..." she said, ticking off the treats she sells from the Buzz Coffee Cart as part of her special education program to help teach life skills.
"She's a fighter," her father said.