Local leaders are reacting to news that some Cobb residents could be at an increased risk of cancer because of a chemical in the air.
Last week, Georgia Health News and WebMD published a report citing elevated levels of a cancer-causing chemical called ethylene oxide at three locations in the metro Atlanta area, including two census tracts in the Smyrna area.
One source of ethylene oxide comes from sterilizing medical products in the U.S., and not far from Smyrna is a plant that does just that. Sterigenics, an Illinois-based company that calls itself “the global leader in comprehensive sterilization solutions,” operates a facility south of Atlanta Road near the Chattahoochee River.
Though the plant’s mailing address is in Smyrna, city officials were quick to tell residents the plant is not within city limits and not under the purview of the city government.
“Though the Sterigenics plant has a Smyrna mailing address it is outside of the jurisdiction of your municipal government, but your elected officials — who have learned of this as you have learned of this — are working with others on it,” the city posted on its social media Monday.
“We’re as concerned as everyone else, and that’s what people need to understand,” said city spokeswoman Jennifer Bennett. “It’s outside our jurisdiction, but whatever we can lend our voice to and whatever we can do.”
Bennett said that includes working with state Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Buckhead, whose district includes part of the area in question.
Jordan issued a statement critical of the state’s Environmental Protection Division, which she said failed to inform residents of the heightened levels despite its own models showing the chemical was beyond the state’s acceptable level of risk.
“The lack of transparency around this elevated health risk is unacceptable,” Jordan said. “I am incredibly troubled about reports that Georgia EPD has consistently pushed back against the (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s) request for information to assist it in its efforts to determine the level and effect of ethylene oxide pollution in our state.”
Jordan was referencing the initial article, which said EPD air branch chief Karen Hays pushed back at EPA staff who requested more information on medical sterilizers in Georgia. Hays said the work was unnecessary and burdensome, and the EPA backed off the request, according to the article.
Jordan also referenced a recent case out of Willowbrook, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. There, the company was recently given the go-ahead to resume operations after installing new safety equipment designed to reduce the emission of ethylene oxide.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency shut down that facility earlier this year after air quality monitoring recorded spikes of the toxic gas in surrounding neighborhoods, according to the Chicago Tribune.
“Sterigenics knows how to take steps to remediate the problem, and I hope that they will work with us to do the same here,” she said.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions right now, and the lack of information has been troubling. Just know that I am working to get to the bottom of the issue. As things progress, I will be as transparent as I can be and send updates as I get them,” she added.
Over in the state House, Rep. Erick Allen, D-Smyrna, said he hopes Sterigenics will install equipment similar to that in Illinois in all its plants on its own, but if they don’t, he said, Georgia may have to take the same actions as in Illinois.
“What I would like to see is the accomplishments they had in Illinois not only in Georgia, but also all across the country,” he said. “It is very irresponsible to take the approach of waiting to fix a problem until there is community outreach. … The company should do the right thing without being sued, but I don’t see how we can avoid the same legal actions the state of Illinois took if they don’t do it on their own.”
Allen said he is also interested in requiring the Federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Environmental Protection Division to disclose information about potentially dangerous emissions to the community.
Hays from the state EPD told the MDJ she thought the article painted a frightening picture, but she said it was not a wholly accurate one.
“I think the story was trying to make people concerned, not trying to give the whole picture,” she said.
Hays said the U.S. EPA released a report last year using updated information on the cancer-causing properties of ethylene oxide. Scientists previously believed it to be less dangerous than they do now.
“This is evolving science, and there was a time in the 2000s where the EPA looked at the regulations they had for ethylene oxide and determined no additional controls were needed,” she said, “but since then, they’ve reevaluated the risk for this chemical, and with that, they are adding additional control.”
Once the latest report was released in August, she said, the EPD began looking into the emissions.
“We reached out to these facilities and asked for updated emissions information. … We used the new data to do some modeling to estimate concerns that might be seen in areas surrounding the plants.”
Hays said those models have been delivered to risk assessors in the department, who are expected to finish looking at them next month.
She also stressed that the chemical is believed to pose a risk over a lifetime, but not a short-term threat, and added that the report cited by the article uses data from 2014 emissions, but Sterigenics has reduced emissions by 90 percent since then.
“Georgia EPD and the Sterigenics facility have been actively working on this since the 2014 data was released,” she said. “We’ve been trying to understand the actual explanation and trying to work with facilities to further reduce the emissions. ... Our focus here in Georgia is to understand the ... results, understand what’s happening in facilities in the state of Georgia, and then work with facilities to reduce emissions.”