Several people in the Chicago suburbs are suing two medical companies for allegedly releasing unsafe levels of a cancer-causing gas into their communities.
Four individual lawsuits allege Medline Industries and Vantage Speciality Chemical have been releasing unsafe levels of toxic ethylene oxide, or EtO, into the air. Court documents state the companies have been releasing as much as 13,000 pounds of the chemical per year at their plants in Lake County as far back as 1985.
Ethylene oxide is commonly used to sterilize medical equipment, and used as a basic ingredient to manufacture a number of products from antifreeze to bowling balls.
The US EPA considers the gas "carcinogenic to humans," while a World Health Organization working group of scientists has repeatedly studied the chemical, finding it conclusively cancer-causing to experimental animals.
The lawsuits come as the Willowbrook medical sterilization company Sterigenics continues to face public scrutiny over its use of the gas. That plant was shuttered by Illinois regulators earlier this year, but allowed to reopen after it installed new pollution control devices.
Lawyer Dan Kotin is one of the lawyers who's representing the plaintiffs. He believes Medline and Vantage share similarities with Sterigenics.
“They knew that they were emitting a cancer-causing gas at a dangerous level, because they self-reported this, and they also knew the effect that this gas could have on people in the community," he said. "They said nothing about it. They told nobody about it.”
All four of the plaintiffs have developed cancer, and include an 80-year-old woman and even a three-year-old boy. They all allege emissions from the plants operated by Medline and Vantage are directly responsible.
Patty Bennett is one of them. She has a rare form of cancer she says was caused by her breathing in EtO around her home.
“I don’t want to be here because it’s not a safe place for me, and so I want them to make my home a safe place for me, and not just me, but everyone.”
Bennett said she took legal action after attending meetings of an anti-Sterigenics group she connected with on Facebook. It's there she found out what ethylene oxide is, and what role it might have played in her cancer diagnosis.
"Nothing is being done here [about Medline and Vantage]," she said. "I really believe that both of these companies need to be held accountable for their actions."
So far, only four people have sued the medical companies over their cancer diagnoses, but Kotin said he expects others will do the same.
"To now learn later that they were likely caused by the wrongful conduct of these corporate actors takes a bad situation and makes it worse," he said.
The US EPA is investigating both plants alongside state regulators.
In a statement, Medline says it will “vigorously” defend against the allegations, and that it has followed all laws and regulations. Vantage had not responded to a request for comment at press time.