Nearly ten months after settling over 870 Illinois-based Cook County ethylene oxide (EtO) exposure claims for $408 million (covered by ELM here), at the beginning of the final quarter of 2023, Sterigenics, one of the world’s largest commercial sterilizers, along with its parent company Sotera, agreed to settle 79 lawsuits relating to EtO emissions from the Sterigenics sterilizing plant in Cobb County, Georgia, for an estimated $35 million, submitting its settlement proposal to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in late October. Just as the Illinois plaintiffs settling this past January alleged that the Willowbrook Sterigenics plant caused their cancer diagnoses and other serious illnesses, the Georgia plaintiffs claimed that the Smyrna Sterigenics plant’s EtO emissions resulted in similar injuries. The settlement agreement was hammered out right before jury selection was about to begin in the first of those 79 Cobb County cases.
Sterigenics’ January 2023 Cook County settlement was in no way the end of litigation concerning the Willowbrook facility, however. Right before Thanksgiving, plaintiffs who had developed cancer and other serious illnesses filed six new lawsuits against Sterigenics and other defendants in Cook County, claiming their diagnoses stemmed from the plant’s negligent EtO emissions. Other unsettled suits relating to the Chicago-area Willowbrook plant are also pending.
A smaller U.S.-based commercial sterilizer in Tennessee newly faces a pending class-action lawsuit in which plaintiffs are claiming injuries from exposure to EtO emissions. Indeed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Tennessee’s Shelby County Health Department had held meetings with the fence-line community in 2022 as part of the EPA’s outreach pledge to educate areas especially vulnerable to injuries resulting from EtO emissions (covered by ELM here).
To round off the year’s EtO developments, EtO is also at the center of a news story across the globe. Two weeks ago, the Taiwanese Food & Drug Administration (TFDA) seized roughly 450 kilograms of blackening spice powder exported by the U.S. to a chain of Taiwanese T.G.I. Friday’s restaurants after the powder was found to be contaminated with EtO residue. Taiwan is among the many countries that has banned or severely limited the use of EtO as a pesticide for American food imports. The TFDA said that the American company that exports the spice powder will now be subject to random batch inspections (i.e., roughly 20% to 50% of all goods imported by the company) whereas routine random inspections of American seasoning imports to Taiwan are typically undertaken at a rate of 2% to 10%, a rate that will not change for other American companies who will not be penalized for the T.G.I. Friday’s seasoning import.