A Cook County jury awarded $363 million dollars in damages from the medical tool sterilization company Sterigenics to a Willowbrook woman who developed breast cancer.
The company’s Willowbrook facility was closed in 2019, months after an EPA report discovered people living within 1.5 miles of the plant were 10 times more likely to develop cancer due to a gas called ethylene oxide that was used at the facility.
Shortly after the EPA report was released, Willowbrook community members began mobilizing to get the plant shut down. A group called Stop Sterigenics was formed to raise awareness about the effects of the carcinogen.
The plaintiff in this case, Sue Kamuda, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 despite having no prior family history of the disease.
Before the report, Kamuda did not even know what ethylene oxide was or the link that it had to her breast cancer, she said.
“A neighbor stopped me when they found out about it, when the report came out, and said that there was going to be a meeting. I didn’t know what ethylene oxide was at that time. That was the first time I ever heard of it,” Kamuda told WTTW News.
Kamuda’s is the largest amount ever awarded to an individual by a jury in the state of Illinois.
“It was determined that there was a statistically significant increase in breast cancer … clearly there’s too much cancer in the area and that’s why we’ve brought these lawsuits,” Patrick Salvi II, Kamuda’s attorney, told WTTW News.
Sterigenics provided a written statement in response to the jury findings.
“We do not believe the jury verdict in this matter reflects the evidence presented in court. Sterigenics is evaluating the verdict and plans to challenge this decision through all appropriate process, including appeals. We will continue to vigorously defend against allegations about our ethylene oxide operations and emissions. We remain committed to our mission of Safeguarding Global Health. As we have consistently done throughout our history, we will continue to operate in compliance with applicable rules and regulations to ensure the safety of our employees, the communities in which we operate and patients around the world,” the statement reads.
Urszula Tanouye, a former microbiologist and Willowbrook resident, got involved in the Stop Sterigenics group by summarizing detailed EPA reports in a digestible format for community members to understand.
“The vast majority of us were not paying attention. It just didn’t get the news coverage that would have caught our attention until 2018… a lot of us got involved and got together in a room and decided that we would take our stand here” she said.
Kamuda’s fight against Sterigenics was initially just to get them out of the Willowbrook neighborhood, but the result was more than what she could have expected.
“I didn’t know that this was going to be the first case and I didn’t know that it was going to be over four years where we had this judgment,” she said.
While the company aims to challenge the award, Salvi says Sterigenics still awaits the challenge of two similar cases.
“We believe that the defendant really ought to wise up and come to the table and potentially try to resolve these cases but we will see what they do,” he said.
Note: This story will be updated with video.