Residents of the Cobb and Fulton county communities surrounding the Smyrna Sterigenics plant that emits a carcinogen are being urged by legislators and elected officials to check if they could be at risk of unsafe exposure.
Leaders are organizing independent air testing around the plant, located at 2973 Industrial Court in Smyrna, to better understand current ethylene oxide levels in surrounding neighborhoods in response to widespread public concern.
Meantime, those living near the Cobb border with Fulton — around Interstate 285 and the Chattahoochee River — should find out if their homes are within six census tracts there that have some of the highest ethylene oxide readings in Georgia, legislators say.
State Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Sandy Springs, who represents the area, has been sharing maps of the census tracts with her constituents and through her public Facebook page, encouraging people to understand the risk.
She says the six tracts, of which two are in Cobb and four are in Fulton, have the highest concentrations of ethylene oxide in the state, with the exception of one tract in Newton County where Covington business Becton Dickinson also uses ethylene oxide.
The data Jordan references comes from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s latest modeling of ethylene oxide levels in every census tract in Georgia, but it dates back to 2014.
“I don’t want people to think this modeling somehow gives them all the information they need, but it’s what we have right now,” Jordan told the MDJ on Tuesday.
The two Cobb census tracts Jordan is highlighting are numbered 312.05, in which the Smyrna Sterigenics plant is located, and 312.12 to its north.
These census tracts have a combined population of around 8,000 people and ethylene oxide levels of 0.028 and 0.011 micrograms per cubic meter respectively, the second and seventh highest ethylene oxide concentrations in the state, according to the EPA.
The four Fulton tracts Jordan cites, numbered 97, 89.04, 89.03 and 88, have ethylene oxide levels between 0.021 and 0.013 micrograms, while the Newton County tract where the Becton Dickinson plant is has the state’s highest concentration of 0.031 micrograms.
There are an estimated 31,000 people living in these seven census tracts with the state’s highest levels of ethylene oxide.
Jordan wants elected officials in every affected community to ensure independent air testing is done as soon as possible to reveal the true current risk.
“This is a very dangerous chemical and I know people in the area with the types of cancers that are associated with this,” Jordan said. “It’s chilling when you really start to think about it.”
Jordan lived and worked for over a decade within the Cobb and Fulton tracts identified as having high levels of ethylene oxide, and although her family recently moved to Sandy Springs, she remains worried.
“It’s pretty cold comfort because my children went to school over there,” she said. “I’m unsure if there’s any level of ethylene oxide that would be safe for the public; that’s my concern at this point.”
In response to the public concern over Sterigenics’ use of ethylene oxide, which it sterilizes medical equipment with, the Illinois-based company has received approval by Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division to install new, anti-pollution controls at its Smyrna plant to reduce ethylene oxide emissions there.
Sterigenics says that should happen by the end of the year, reducing modeled emissions of ethylene oxide from about 0.02 micrograms per cubic meter to around 0.0005 micrograms, which translates to a reduction in possible lifetime exposure cancer risk of roughly 100 in every million people to just two.
Jordan wonders if that will cut it.
“This company (Sterigenics) has said they’ll reduce emissions but it’s becoming clearer and clearer that doesn’t matter, it’s like “I’ll just poison you less” isn’t enough,” she said, adding that independent monitoring around the firm’s Illinois plant has revealed concentration levels much higher than EPA modeling suggests.
The Smyrna City Council, under the direction of Mayor Max Bacon, has sprung into action to establish a joint oversight committee and an independent air quality task force to address the issue.
At the council’s regular meeting Monday night, Roy Acree, Smyrna Fire chief and director of Emergency Management, gave an update on the city’s response to the ethylene oxide concern, saying the joint oversight committee will comprise local elected officials, public health and emergency management professionals and possibly other stakeholders.
The independent air quality task force of around five or six industry experts could include a chemical engineer, toxicologist, industrial hygienist, environmental attorney and ambient air sample expert, Acree said.
“The primary role of that task force will be to help guide, ask questions of the oversight committee and steer best practices based on expert recommendations,” he said. “All in an effort to try to just get to the facts so we can share openly what those facts are.”
State Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs, who is chairman of the Cobb Legislative Delegation, is also pushing for immediate independent air testing around Sterigenics’ Smyrna site, which he says should be a joint operation.
“I really do think there should be a more concerted effort to try to get all the legislators involved in the process, as right now there’s a lot of different people asking for the same information,” he said. “It might be better to join forces.”
The next public meeting on the Sterigenics issue in Cobb is Monday, Aug. 19 at the Cobb County Civic Center at 548 South Marietta Parkway in Marietta, where a 5 p.m. open house will precede the 7 p.m. formal meeting involving federal EPA officials and staff from the Georgia EPD and the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott has been organizing the meeting and is also expected to be a part of the joint oversight committee being established by the Smyrna City Council.
Ott said the Cobb and Smyrna governments are joining resources to hire independent air testing firm GHD Services Inc, which did the testing of ethylene oxide around the Sterigenics facility in Illinois.
Ott said GHD has a local presence in Georgia and it is preparing a cost estimate for testing in Cobb, which should yield results within six weeks of the testing starting.
The cost estimate should be ready by the end of this week and will form part of an agenda item in next Tuesday’s regular Cobb commissioners meeting that will seek to authorize the county to partner with Smyrna on the testing, Ott said.
“The county is working very closely with Smyrna in trying to get accurate information so citizens can feel comfortable as to what’s going on,” he said, adding the issue is a community one that should be free of political affiliations.
“What’s important is that dialogue is established. Casting blame doesn’t really accomplish anything either.”
Ott said it’s possible a secondary request will be made for GHD to also test air in Fulton County, south of the Chattahoochee, if local governments there are willing to be involved.
He expects the independent testing to in some ways validate the EPD’s numbers in regards to ethylene oxide in the area, and said GHD will try to establish the ambient air quality in order to determine how much ethylene oxide is being emitted from the Smyrna Sterigenics plant.