As more air testing is planned in Cobb County and around the state to determine levels of a carcinogen used daily by the medical sterilization industry, residents near a plant in the Smyrna area wait to see what its future, and theirs, holds.
The plant is owned and operated by global company Sterigenics, which uses ethylene oxide, a carcinogen, in gas form to sterilize packaged medical equipment that’s widely used locally and further afield in hospitals, clinics and the like.
Sterigenics’ Cobb facility, on Olympic Industrial Drive, opened in 1972 and became, in July 2019, a cause for concern, after a federal air pollution study found higher than acceptable cancer risks in surrounding areas.
The plant, just off Atlanta Road in unincorporated Cobb, is near the Chattahoochee River and Fulton County’s northwest border, in an area that used to be mostly industrial.
Over the decades, residential development has crept closer and now there are homes, churches, an elementary school and shops within a mile or so of the sterilization plant.
It was closed in August 2019 so Sterigenics could install a better emissions capture and control system, designed to release as little ethylene oxide into the air as possible for a facility of its kind.
Although that work is largely complete, the plant can’t resume sterilization operations until Sterigenics and Cobb officials work out issues to do with occupancy and fire safety. There’s currently no estimate about when that will happen.
Keeping their eyes trained on Sterigenics and its local facility in the meantime are the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, Gov. Brian Kemp’s Office, the governments of Cobb County, Smyrna and Atlanta, and Stop Sterigenics Georgia, a protest group opposed to ethylene oxide’s use in communities.
Sterigenics’ local operations have also mobilized the Cobb and Fulton county legislative delegations in the Georgia House, which organized a joint session at the state Capitol to discuss concerns.
A lawsuit seeking tighter state controls on the facility is in play, some legislative changes have been proposed for ethylene oxide use, and legal firms across metro Atlanta are working on class action lawsuits — actively seeking residents with cancer cases that could be linked to ethylene oxide exposure.