Ex-Hinsdale South teachers sue Sterigenics over cancers

Six former Hinsdale South High School teachers are suing Sterigenics, saying ethylene oxide emissions from its medical-supplies-sterilization facilities in Willowbrook gave them cancer.

The suit was filed Friday in Cook County circuit court.

Mary Margaret Eskey of Naperville contends the ethylene oxide from Sterigenics caused her to develop non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Jeanne Conrad-DeBroeck of Lisle, Carol L. Hanley of Clarendon Hills, Rose Keppler of Highland, Carol A. Tufo of Naperville and Marguerite Vahldieck of Naperville say it caused their breast cancers.

Their suit seeks to consolidate with 48 other lawsuits filed by The Collins Law Firm, P.C., and Minder, Barnhill and Galland, P.C. Overall, nearly 90 cases have been filed in 2018 and 2019 against Sterigenics in Cook County. Three cases were filed in DuPage County, but have been withdrawn.

The high school is at 75th Street and Clarendon Hills Road in Darien, about a mile northwest of the Sterigenics facilities at 830 Midway Drive and 7725 S. Quincy St. All are in DuPage County, but the plaintiffs' lawyers argue the suit should be heard in Cook County because several of the defendants live in Cook; the plant's emissions went into Cook; several of the women were treated in Cook; and several government agencies that regulate Sterigenics have offices, with evidence and witnesses, located in Cook.

The suit says Eskey worked full-time at the school from 1978 to 1996. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2013.

Conrad-DeBroeck worked there full-time from 1979 to 1999, and as a substitute teacher from 1999 to 2011. She was diagnosed in 2015.

Hanley worked full-time at the school from 1980 to 2002, and was diagnosed in 2019.

Keppler worked full-time at the school from 1977 to 2005, and as a substitute teacher from 2006 to 2009. She was diagnosed in 2013.

Tufo worked full-time at the school from 1969 to 1971 and 1981 to 2001. She was diagnosed in 2007.

Vahldieck worked full-time at the school from 1982 to 2012, and was diagnosed in 2012.

Sterigenics began operations on Quincy Street in 1984, and on Midway Drive in 1999, according to an Environmental Protection Agency.

The defendants are Sterigenics U.S. LLC; Solera Health LLC; Bob Novak, the operations manager of the plant; Roger Clark, maintenance supervisor; and GTCR LLC, a private-equity firm that bought Sterigenics International LLC in 2011.

Concerns about ethylene oxide pollution from Sterigenics surfaced in August 2018, after the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry released a letter stating that, based on revised standards regarding humans' exposure to ethylene oxide, the Willowbrook area had a potentially higher cancer risk than previously thought.

The Illinois Department of Public Health then did a cancer assessment for the area based on cases reported to the state's cancer registry; it found elevated numbers of some cancers, but that there were inconsistencies between genders across the two study areas and among the types of cancers.

According to the National Institutes of Health's National Cancer Institute, occupational exposure to ethylene oxide has been linked to lymphoma, leukemia, breast and stomach cancers.

The Illinois EPA ordered the facilities closed in February. A consent order in July allowed the company to reopen the facilities if it could meet certain standards. In September, Sterigenics announced it was closing the plants permanently, saying it couldn't get its lease renewed.

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