A judge in Cook County, IL ruled Oct. 21 that hundreds of lawsuits accusing the medical sterilization company, Sterigenics, of releasing a carcinogenic substance in the environment, will be tried in groups of 10. 

The ruling comes one month after a Cook County jury awarded plaintiff Sue Kamuda $363 million in damages, finding Sterigenics liable for exposing her to the chemical ethylene oxide (EtO), which caused her cancer. Kamuda’s award is the largest in Illinois history for an individual plaintiff, according to CBS News Chicago

EtO is the most frequently used chemical for medical device sterilization, primarily for its ability to effectively sterilize without causing damage to medical devices. According to QMed, elevated EtO levels over many years have been linked to increased risk of some types of cancers, which is why the EPA regulates sites that emit the chemical. EtO has been found in breast tissue in women with breast cancer, and has been found to contribute to three types of white blood cell cancers:

  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma 
  • Myeloma
  • Lymphocytic leukemia 

Kamuda, a breast cancer survivor, and 700 other plaintiffs have sued Sterigenics, accusing the company of knowingly emitting EtO as a toxic gas from its now-defunct facility in Willowbrook, IL, a Chicago suburb. Kamuda lived near the Sterigenics facility for three decades, and her son was recently diagnosed with lymphoma. Her case was the first Sterigenics lawsuit to go to trial. The Cook County judge’s order will consolidate the remaining lawsuits into groups of 10 in order to get those cases tried faster.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Sterigenics was a commercial sterilizer that used ethylene oxide (EtO) to sterilize medical equipment and other products. The company began operations in the Chicago area in 1984 and was forced to cease operations by the Illinois EPA in 2019.   

In 2018, EPA monitoring indicated that there was a high concentration of EtO in the air adjacent to the facility. Former workers at the Sterigenics plant became whistleblowers and claimed that the company emitted more toxic chemicals into the air than what was reported to EPA. 

Sterigenics is a subunit of Sotera Health, which plans to appeal the verdict for Kamuda.