The first independent air testing monitors are in place around the Sterigenics plant near Smyrna to capture ethylene oxide concentrations in the air, in an effort to determine exposure levels of the carcinogen and subsequent risk of cancer among those living and working in nearby communities.

The sampling devices, like basketball-sized silver canisters, were installed this week by engineers from GHD, a company hired by the Cobb County, Smyrna and Atlanta governments to test the air in up to 30 locations within those jurisdictions.

A county video of one of the monitors being installed near Smyrna City Hall can be found here: http://cobbgov.tv/media/Air_Testing_Installation.mov

The Sterigenics facility, which uses ethylene oxide to sterilize over a million pieces of medical equipment every day, is on Olympic Industrial Drive, off Atlanta Road, in southeast Cobb.

Many residents in surrounding neighborhoods, including Smyrna, Vinings and north Atlanta, are worried they’re being exposed to unsafe levels of the chemical, which when combined with water forms ethylene glycol — the main ingredient in antifreeze.

The county’s communications department announced the first GHD air monitor installations Thursday night, saying the company’s engineers have been placing the devices around the Sterigenics plant throughout the week.

“The company will continually analyze the position and placement of these monitors as the testing commences,” said Ross Cavitt, Cobb’s communications director.

The Cobb County and Smyrna governments are each spending about $40,000 on the testing and Atlanta has pledged up to $54,500.

It’s hoped the results will give the most accurate picture possible of whether ethylene oxide levels around the plant exceed federal and state limits, and if so, by how much.

Already the concern about elevated cancer risks is affecting real estate in communities surrounding the Sterigenics plant, with increased listings and agents debating how much to disclose about the situation to potential buyers.

Law firms throughout metro Atlanta are also offering to review for free whether people’s cancer can be linked to Sterigenics emissions, for eligibility in any individual or class action lawsuits against the company, although it operates legally within the parameters of the federal Clean Air Act.

Outdoor recess has been indefinitely suspended by at least one nearby school, Benjamin Preparatory, situated a mile from the plant, where school administrators also upgraded their air cleaning system and installed ethylene oxide filters.

Sterigenics is at the beginning of what was initially expected to be a five-month construction project at its Cobb plant to install extra emissions control measures, aimed at reducing the plant’s annual ethylene oxide emissions from over 200 pounds to about 40.

The work began Aug. 26 and has now been sped up for completion by the first week in October, a Sterigenics spokesman announced Friday, citing requests by Gov. Brian Kemp and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to expedite the process.

“The construction is proceeding ahead of schedule,” said Bryan Locke, a spokesman for Sterigenics. “We have determined that suspending sterilization operations, and the use of ethylene oxide in those operations, throughout the duration of the work will enable us to further accelerate the installation of these enhancements and that doing so is the most efficient path to meeting the requests of all stakeholders.”

Locke told the MDJ that plant employees, of which there are around 30, will still have work to do, including maintenance, during the construction process while the facility’s normal sterilization operations are stopped.

He also said Sterigenics will work with its customers in the medical industry “to minimize the impact on the supply of vital sterile medical products to hospitals and the patients who depend on them every day.”

Before Friday’s announcement of the suspension of all sterilization onsite for construction, Sterigenics agreed to provide its emissions data throughout the construction phase to the Cobb County, Smyrna and Atlanta government representatives on a newly formed Air Quality Oversight Committee that also includes environmental and health experts. This was so the air sampling results could be matched with actual ethylene oxide emissions from the plant.

Committee members could then in turn provide the data to GHD so it could properly assess the cancer risk associated with normal daily operations at the Sterigenics plant, which has been sterilizing medical equipment onsite since 1972.

Now the use of ethylene oxide at the facility has ceased, until operations resume in October, any air sampling before then will not represent ethylene oxide concentrations during normal plant production.

That worries members of the grassroots opposition group Stop Sterigenics Georgia, which issued a statement Friday regarding the issue.

“We need accurate data on the amount of ethylene oxide being released into the air when Sterigenics is in full production,” the group stated. “Air testing conducted while the plant is shut down will not give us the data we need.”

The group claims Sterigenics only suspended sterilization at its Cobb plant to hasten the construction project because contractors refused to work onsite while ethylene oxide was being used, but Sterigenics disputes that and insists no workers are in danger.

The Cobb government said the GHD testing locations include schools and public areas, and that engineers will decide when and for how long to conduct testing before reporting their findings back to the air quality committee.

The Georgia EPD, which is responsible for ensuring Sterigenics operates legally and safely, is also undertaking its own air testing regime around the plant, as well as in south DeKalb County and rural southern Georgia to determine base levels of ethylene oxide in the air.

The first results from these tests are expected within the next few months.

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