Tucked in the back of open space off Kipling Street and Tenth Avenue in Lakewood is a series of dirt mounds known as the Sunset Park Bike Jumps, built over the decades by members of the biking community. With jumps large and small, the terrain is good for both beginners and more experienced riders. When he attended Lakewood High School from 2004 to 2008, Blake Darnell would stop by daily. He often went before school, after school and on weekends with friends.
Less than a mile from Sunset Park is Terumo BCT Sterilization Services Inc., a facility on West Collins Avenue that manufactures and distributes blood-related medical devices around the globe. A 2021 ProPublica investigation detailing cancer-causing air pollution in the United States listed Terumo as one of Colorado’s only places with an increased risk, generating emissions that can be as large as 1.7 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s level of acceptable cancer risk.
That heightened risk level comes from the facility’s emission of ethylene oxide; using data from the EPA, ProPublica reported that Terumo contributes 100 percent of the increased cancer risk in the area. The company uses ethylene oxide to sterilize equipment because it helps break down DNA — but that’s also why it can cause cancer, most often contributing to lymphoma and leukemia.
When Darnell went to the emergency room in 2009 because of a pain in his leg, he found out that he not only had cancer but necrotizing fasciitis. He was eventually transferred to the Colorado Blood Cancer Institute, where he would spend every night for the next five years receiving treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia, which is common in children but more difficult to cure in adults.
In a lawsuit filed in Jefferson County District Court last April, Darnell claims that Terumo BCT caused his cancer, and the health problems he still experiences, by exposing him to ethylene oxide through his high school years.
"The wind patterns and meteorological data in the area of the [Terumo BCT] sterilization plant in comparison to Sunset Park Bike Jumps predominantly flows west-to-east and caused [ethylene oxide] to migrate from source emission to the park,” the lawsuit charges, adding that ethylene oxide also traveled from the Terumo BCT facility through Sunset Park by way of Lakewood Gulch, a stream that runs past the bike jumps.
“[Darnell’s] prognosis was extremely poor,” the lawsuit continues. “In fact he was immediately awarded special privileges reserved for children and teens who are presumed to be facing an impending early death.”
Although he survived, Darnell says he was at death’s door several times. Whenever it seemed like he might have reached the end, he thought about his family, since they would be the ones left to suffer. His mother died of breast cancer about a year after his diagnosis, and his older brother Gordon moved back in with his father to help out. Gordon once donated white blood cells to keep his brother going when doctors feared he wouldn’t make it another day. “Blake was pretty much dead,” Gordon says. “It was a last resort.”
“Every day there’s something new,” Darnell recalls of his time in the hospital. “You fix one problem, then there’s something else.”
After his cancer treatment ended, Darnell’s lower left leg was amputated because the steroids he was on, as well as his extended time in bed — he was bedridden for three years — had left him with no cartilage in his ankle. Almost as soon as his left leg was gone, he experienced pain in his right leg. He had a talus bone replacement, in which a 3D-printed metal bone was swapped for his damaged one, to avoid a second amputation. Although that's helped with the pain, all of Darnell’s bones were impacted by the cancer treatment process, giving him osteoporosis at the age of 31.
Darnell now lives with his brother and father in Lakewood. “The one good thing that came out of cancer was Zoey,” he says, pointing to his Chihuahua. When he was growing up, his dad never let him have a dog — but after years of treatment, he convinced him that the Chihuahua would be therapeutic. The only time Darnell and Zoey have been apart is when Darnell had to have surgery and remain in the hospital overnight. Leaving his pet made it one of his hardest hospital stays, he recalls, even though it was just two days rather than five years.
Darnell is learning to live as an adult. During his time in the hospital, he lost touch with almost all of his friends because of strict protocols limiting visitors. He hasn’t been able to return to work because of continued pain, fatigue and a weakened immune system. In addition to compensation for medical expenses, the suit is asking for economic damages of at least $1,000,000 to make up for Darnell’s years of lost work — and lost future work.
Darnell isn’t the only person who believes Terumo BCT caused their cancer. He's part of a twelve-plaintiff trial against Terumo BCT that was just rescheduled for July 2023.
Terumo BCT says that it can’t comment on ongoing litigation, but Jessi Dōne, Terumo BCT sterilization leader, released a statement: “We have been part of the Lakewood community since 1967 and care deeply for our employees, patients and the community. We consistently review and update our safety measures and take voluntary steps to reduce our emissions, above and beyond state and federal standards.” The statement notes that ethylene oxide is a common and effective way to sterilize medical equipment, and that the Lakewood facility complies with all standards relevant to ethylene oxide use.
That wasn't always the case, however. A 2017 Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment inspection found the facility out of compliance with regulations, having failed to provide an emissions notice to the state for more than eighteen months after it was required to do so.
The facility also received a citation from the EPA in 2020 for non-compliance with the federal Clean Air Act. According to Dōne, the EPA reviewed the facility’s ethylene oxide data in 2021 and found it was within permit limits.
“We are not aware of any data that suggest Lakewood residents are being harmed by our operations,” Dōne said in the statement. “In fact, the CDPHE and U.S. EPA have determined that there is no increased incidence of cancer in the area surrounding our facility as compared to the rest of Colorado.”
In 2019, the CDPHE reported that, while the facility had improved its ethylene oxide emissions after being asked to do so the year before, “residents and off-site workers could be exposed to elevated levels of ethylene oxide in air that are associated with an increased cancer risk. The elevated cancer risks could harm the health of these populations.”
That report concluded that cancer risks at all sampling locations were elevated compared to the EPA’s cancer risk range. However, the CDPHE also noted that Terumo BCT had reduced cancer risks two- to five-fold with its additional 2018 controls, and said that the elevated ethylene oxide samples might not necessarily be connected to Terumo. The report encouraged continued CDPHE monitoring and exploration of ways to minimize emissions from the facility. The CDPHE issued Terumo BCT draft permit requirements in 2019, according to a department spokesperson, and will eventually finalize more permanent requirements.
But those requirements could change. The EPA issues National Ambient Air Quality Standards for six pollutants; ethylene oxide isn’t among them. State representative Chris Kennedy, who represents the Lakewood area, was approached this session by Conservation Colorado about sponsoring a bill, Public Protections From Toxic Air Contaminants, that would make it clear that the state can go beyond the EPA and establish a new program to regulate such toxic air contaminants.
“It wasn’t until the end of last year that I started learning about the limitations of the state and where federal regulations ended,” says Kennedy, who signed on as a sponsor. “[Conservation Colorado] wanted to make the case that this isn’t just an oil refinery problem — that this is a statewide problem, and we have numerous emissions that we are not monitoring.”
On April 7, a revised version of the bill with fourteen amendments passed through the House Committee on Energy & Environment and moved to Appropriations. Representative Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez and Senator Julie Gonzales are co-sponsoring the bill; Kennedy says they reached out to several businesses that would be impacted, including Terumo BCT, asking for written statements with their suggestions for any changes, but have yet to receive any.
Instead, the companies requested meetings, which the sponsors have attended. According to Kennedy, while industry representatives have asked the legislators not to create new regulations, they haven’t given feedback on the proposal. “We’re going to regulate, and if you want to help shape those regulations, this is your chance,” Kennedy says he's told them.
While lawmakers fight to push through legislation, Darnell is fighting for recovery. “No matter how hard it is or how hard it gets, just try to stay positive,” he urges. “Try and keep busy. Every win, no matter how big or small, is a win…and if you have a good support system, family, friends, try to lean on them and their support for your own power.”