Sterigenics, the embattled medical device sterilization company whose Cobb plant was shuttered last summer over concerns about its use of a cancer-causing chemical, has been given permission to test a new emissions control system, according to the county.
“This test does not involve the use of ethylene oxide and is not a prelude to the facility re-opening,” the county noted in a news release.
In July 2019 it was revealed that national air pollution monitoring had identified higher than normal cancer risks in areas around the Sterigenics plant in Cobb and other facilities also using ethylene oxide.
Testing of the new emission control system was called off in February after county and state intervention. East Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott, whose district includes the facility, said at the time that the testing was unacceptable as it was being done without approval or permits from the county and state.
Sterigenics President Phil Macnabb announced in October that the new emissions system at the Cobb plant is supposed to stop 99.99% of the air inside the facility from getting out. That’s more control than any other such facility in the country, and a new national standard that Sterigenics will aim to meet with all its plants using ethylene oxide, Macnabb said.
Monday, south Cobb Commissioner Lisa Cupid shared on Facebook communication from County Manager Rob Hosack that explained the county’s decision to allow Sterigenics to move forward with testing.
“Cobb County is in receipt of a March 20, 2020 certification from Pond & Company regarding the emissions upgrades at the Sterigenics facility. This limited authorization to conduct air-pressure testing does not constitute a duly-issued permit or a valid certificate of occupancy and does not authorize sterilization to occur at the facility. A decision regarding whether to allow Sterigenics to resume limited operations will be made following the negative air pressure testing and in accordance with recommendations from a 3rd party expert as previously discussed with Sterigenics,” the statement reads.
The Sterigenics plant shut down in late August to expedite emissions improvements on the facility as requested by the state. Later, the county imposed a stay on any reopenings, and the facility remains closed pending county-initiated third-party investigations into Cobb fire code and building safety concerns.
Janet Rau, president of local advocacy group Stop Sterigenics Georgia, said the company has been rewarded for skirting the law.
“Basically the county has now given them a pass on any illegal activity that happened before this,” Rau said. “They did not have valid renovation permits to do the work that they did.”
County Chairman Mike Boyce did not immediately return a call seeking comment Monday night.
Meanwhile, a state lawmaker representing Smyrna has asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to clarify a recent letter in which it urged Gov. Brian Kemp to reopen the facility.
State Rep. Erick Allen, D-Smyrna, said he shared the FDA’s desire to support medical providers on the frontlines of the fight against the virus.
“But we need to make sure that we are not allowing a company to basically lobby the federal government for favors using this emergency as its reason,” Allen told the MDJ Monday.
In a letter to the governor dated March 19, the FDA’s Stephen Hahn, commissioner of Food and Drugs, said the need for personal protective equipment such as gowns, respirators, masks, and gloves has outpaced supply during the coronavirus outbreak.
“Due to the recent challenges with the closure of some commercial sterilizers, such as the Sterigenics facility located in Cobb County, the supply of critical (personal protective equipment) during the COVID-19 outbreak has been further limited,” Hahn wrote. “FDA is asking for your assistance in helping to increase the supply of (personal protective equipment) to help protect against COVID-19 by working with Sterigenics to allow for the appropriate sterilization of (personal protective equipment).”
In a letter posted on his Facebook page Monday, Allen asked Hahn whether the FDA is requesting the reopening of Sterigenics “under the Defense Production Act or under any different authority.”
“Right now the president has authorized the act but said he’s unwilling to use it to influence private business — but this to me seems like the federal government influencing private business,” Allen said.
Allen also wants to know whether the FDA has requested the reopening of other sterilization facilities, some of which have closed under scrutiny similar to that fixed on the Cobb County Sterigenics plant.
Rau said it wouldn’t make sense for the company to sterilize the personal protective equipment used by nurses and doctors treating people for the coronavirus.
Rau said there are different levels of sterilization, ranging from Level 1, clean, to Level 4, sterile.
“They don’t have to be at Level 4 sterile,” Rau said of the protective equipment. “You’re actually keeping them out of the hospitals for a longer period of time. It takes three weeks for something to get into the cycle and get completely through it.”
In his letter to Hahn, Allen asked for a list of products the FDA would like Sterigenics to sterilize, echoing Rau’s comments that protective equipment doesn’t need to undergo the thorough sterilization Sterigenics conducts at its Cobb facility.
Rau said the FDA had reached out to her group before sending its letter to the governor.
“The FDA reached out to the Stop Sterigenics group as a whole ... and said that it was still up to the governor and the county to make the final decision, that they were not requiring Sterigenics to reopen to fight (the coronavirus),” Ray said. “So it still lays in the hands of the governor and the county officials to make a decision that takes all things into account.”
The FDA request comes after Sterigenics urged Cobb officials to allow it to operate and respond to the public health crisis.
Sterigenics CEO Phil McNabb previously told the MDJ the company should be cleared to continue operations immediately to help fight the virus.
“The reason it’s not operating is because of — I’ll call it bureaucracy — around re-looking at through a third party what the county has validated for over 40 years: that the facility has the appropriate certificates of occupancy, it’s a safe facility, and we’re looking for a third party to validate that,” McNabb said. “That process has been going on for five months.”