Why we dug into Sterigenics and its use of carcinogens

Residents in the Greater Toronto Area had no idea a company operating in their community uses a known carcinogen. We dug into it in a massive investigation with The Local
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A nighttime shot of the outside of the he Sterigenics factory in Mississauga, Ontario.

My mom has endured cancer, twice, as have many in our extended family. One of the many awful things about the experience is the near-impossibility of pinpointing a cause. Yes, some risk factors are well known. But everyone has met a family like mine, where some members develop the illness and others are thankfully spared. I’ll never know why my mom got sick, and that’s painful to accept. 

Maybe this uncertainty is why cancer organizations fundraise by talking about cures instead of prevention. I often worry that approach deflects attention from the carcinogens we’re exposed to, often without information or consent. So when reporters Leah Borts-Kuperman and Urbi Khan pitched a story about the company Sterigenics and the carcinogens it uses, which we ran this week, I said yes almost immediately. 

Sterigenics uses a chemical called ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment. It’s highly effective, but its emissions are carcinogenic when inhaled in high amounts, as Health Canada, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other institutions have said for decades. In the U.S., almost 1,000 plaintiffs have joined suits alleging ethylene oxide emissions from Sterigenics facilities led to illnesses including cancer. The company has agreed to pay out almost half a billion U.S. dollars in Illinois and Georgia as a result. It says the settlements are not an admission of liability and that “no generally accepted science demonstrates that low-level [ethylene oxide] exposure from Sterigenics’ facilities cause medical conditions.”

As Urbi and Leah report, in 2021, Environment and Climate Change Canada researchers studying ethylene oxide emissions drove around Toronto measuring the chemical — and found very high levels near a Sterigenics plant in Scarborough that’s now closed. But the response here has been much different than in the States. No level of government seems to have advised residents of the results, either in Scarborough or in Mississauga, where Sterigenics has opened a new factory. Both neighbourhoods have a high number of racialized and low-income residents, and no one seemed to know Sterigenics existed. 

“Leah and I felt like harbingers of bad news when we went door-to-door in Scarborough and Mississauga and talked with people about what they knew, which was basically little to nothing,” Urbi told me. “The thing that really hit home was realizing I personally know people in the community. I mentor kids who live in and around the Golden Mile neighbourhood where Sterigenics was located in Scarborough.”

Aerial view of the public school just 250 metres away from Sterigenics' former location in Scarborough, where Environment Canada researchers found worrying high levels of ethylene oxide in 2021.
A Mississauga factory is using a known carcinogen. Residents had no idea

Leah and Urbi became friends studying journalism at Toronto Metropolitan University. After Leah moved back to North Bay, Ont., they kept in touch. Both are freelancers, and Urbi also teaches community journalism and personal storytelling to newcomer youth at a Scarborough non-profit. She told Leah that after work, she often felt like she had grime covering her hair and skin. 

The two began digging into air quality in Scarborough, where factories often bump up against residential areas. They found Environment Canada’s ethylene oxide study and began reading about the chemical and the lawsuits tied to Sterigenics plants in the U.S. Then, they sent me a pitch. 

What I found frustrating while editing the story is something I’ve written about before: the lack of access Canadians have to data about our own health. In the U.S., ethylene oxide outrage took off when the Illinois Department of Public Health found Hodgkin’s lymphoma cases in women living near a Sterigenics facility was 90 per cent higher than expected. But in Ontario — as Leah and Urbi report in the story — that kind of data is not publicly available. Like I said: when it comes to cancer, you often have to accept you’ll never know — especially in Canada. 

As with Leah’s previous Narwhal stories set in North Bay, this piece shows the value of local journalists who are personally invested in the places they’re writing about. That includes photographer Sid Naidu and, well, me; we’re both from Scarborough and care deeply about the neighbourhoods near both the current plant and former facility. 

The story also shows the value of collaboration, not just between two reporters, but two newsrooms. Once again, The Narwhal has partnered with The Local, which allowed us to tap into their deep knowledge of public health — and pay Leah and Urbi a bit more for months of reporting. Like us, The Local is a non-profit.

We’re both determined to bring to light critical stories about what’s happening in your backyard — and we can only do this thanks to the support of community members like you who give whatever small amount they can afford.

The result of all this collaboration and hard work is a thorough investigation that’s also touching and from the heart. I’m glad The Narwhal and The Local are telling it. 

Take care and f**k cancer, 

Denise Balkissoon
Ontario bureau chief
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P.S. We want to cover more environmental issues that directly impact communities — and often go unreported. Will you become a member by giving what you can to sustain this public-interest journalism?
I’ll pitch in!

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Here’s to (more) collaborative journalism

Pardon us, but we’re revelling in some more good vibes after seeing our collaborative, reader-funded journalism earn some honours from high places this past week.

Last Friday, a few Narwhals had the pleasure of accepting our first-ever National Newspaper Awards. 

Northwest B.C. reporter Matt Simmons worked with IndigiNews editor Cara McKenna and photojournalist Marty Clemens for a feature on the rematriation of a stolen totem pole to the Nisg̱a’a Nation. The trio were awarded the top honours for arts and entertainment reporting.

And in the sustained news coverage category, Ontario reporter Emma McIntosh shared the award with journalists at the Toronto Star for their dogged efforts to uncover the Greenbelt scandal.

Speaking of that Greenbelt reporting: The Narwhal and the Toronto Star have been nominated for the Michener Award, considered to be Canada’s highest honour in journalism for work that has a profound public impact.

“It was an enormous effort powered by so many people in both newsrooms, and it’s immensely humbling to see that collaborative work recognized,” says Emma, who’s in the midst of hosting a podcast miniseries on the Greenbelt saga (the final episode comes out this Monday on The Big Story).

If you love this kind of journalism, please support us so we can keep it up!

🤍 Become a member

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What we’re watching & reading

Mutant crayfish? Ontario experts are sounding the alarm on the invasive crustacean and rising temperatures in Lake Superior. Watch this episode of Great Lakes Now.

In The Globe and Mail, Arno Kopecky writes about a baby Douglas fir with 1,000 years of life ahead — if he could pick the right spot to plant it.
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