The toxic chemical being used to sterilize medical equipment at an industrial plant in southeast Cobb County is known to cause cancer, and now it also seems to be having an effect on the area’s real estate and school communities.
There are signs in the Smyrna and Vinings neighborhoods that some residents are unhappy living, working and sending their children to school there because of increased cancer risks identified in a national air toxics survey.
Those signs are increasingly being posted at residential street corners, in front of homes and outside town home and apartment complexes surrounding the facility, listing for sale properties that owners no longer want.
State Rep. Erick Allen, D-Smyrna, has been talking with real estate agents, homeowners and other constituents about the issue and said property values in the areas surrounding the Sterigenics plant are dropping.
“The people I’ve spoken to have confirmed it’s harder to move properties and I’ve seen (property value) drops as low as 7% and as high as 20%, “Allen told the MDJ on Friday. “There is a concern this is going to continue impacting property values in the area.”
Whatever the reasons, there is an increase in new listings in the neighborhoods near the Sterigenics sterilization plant off Atlanta Road, according to data pulled this week by the Cobb Association of Realtors.
It shows in the last two months both residential listings and sales are up in Smyrna compared to the same time last year.
But so are those indicators for Cobb County as a whole, said Bruce Ailion, Realtor, attorney and president of the Cobb Association of Realtors, adding it’s a strong time for the Cobb market.
“And regardless, given the time frame necessary to decide to list your home, list it, find a buyer and close the sale, any data from this time frame would be irrelevant in trying to assess the impact of the ethylene oxide issue in this area,” Ailion told the MDJ.
His advice to both homeowners and potential home buyers in the Smyrna area is to wait for the results of air testing being conducted in the next few months by an independent company commissioned by the Cobb County, Smyrna and Atlanta governments as well as the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, “to determine the actual levels of ethylene oxide in the air, and where those levels fall compared to acceptable health standards.”
“I understand those tests should be available soon,” Ailion said.
But that is not enough for some people who have already moved out of the area or plan to as a result of the recent cancer risk revelations, according to members of the grassroots opposition group Stop Sterigenics Georgia.
“We have four homes for sale in our neighborhood alone now,” founding member Bridget Kurt told the MDJ, adding that she lives a mile from the Sterigenics plant.
“I was on Moores Mill (Road) off of Atlanta Road the other day and saw about eight homes up for sale in one small area. Even the rich homes by Log Cabin (Drive) and Polo Lane are going up for sale, no one wants to live here if they (Sterigenics) stay open,” Kurt said.
She believes Sterigenics’ ethylene oxide emissions have at the very least made her asthma and bronchitis worse, although she suspects the chemical concentrations have done much more to harm her neighbors and others in nearby communities since the facility started operations in 1972.
Sterigenics’ self-reported data shows its Cobb plant emitted almost 90,000 pounds of ethylene oxide in gas form in 1987 alone.
Kurt told the MDJ one of her neighbors tried to get a quote for their Smyrna house this week and was told it couldn’t be done “due to high risk factors.”
There has also been discussion among some Cobb homeowners about contesting their property taxes, due mid-October, she said.
Already, law firms in metro Atlanta are encouraging cancer patients and their families to see if they’re eligible for individual or class action lawsuits against Sterigenics, although it operates legally.
“It’s such a bizarre thing,” Kurt said. “We’ve been living here for years and we never knew; it wakes you up.”
A supplemental property disclosure notice from Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage citing ethylene oxide emissions in the Smyrna and Vinings areas was shared with the MDJ this week.
It calls for potential buyers to hold the real estate firm and its agents “harmless” from any claims, expenses or losses of any kind in any way related to the issue.
“As with all matters that may pose a potential health concern, purchaser is advised to independently research the latest information (which is available on the internet) with respect to the levels and timing of past emissions or to contact the Environmental Protection Agency and/or Georgia Department of (Natural) Resources,” the disclosure notice states.
The Cobb Association of Realtors’ general rule of thumb regarding disclosures about properties on the market is “when in doubt, disclose,” Ailion said.
Asked about whether Sterigenics specifically has been an issue of late for local Realtors, he said the association is evaluating disclosure measures in regard to the company’s Cobb facility, but that disclosure “is likely not a legal requirement.”
“We are aware that some brokers are adding additional disclosures,” he said.
And it’s not just the local real estate industry making changes in regards to the ethylene oxide emissions from the Sterigenics plant at 2971 Olympic Industrial Drive.
Benjamin Preparatory School on Church Road is a mile from the facility and has indefinitely suspended outdoor recess until more is known about the risks there of ethylene oxide exposure.
School director Nicole Kelly told the MDJ extra air filtration measures have also been installed at the private Christian school to filter out ethylene oxide and clean the inside air, as some school community members are “freaking out.”
“We’re eager for either private or state testing to go ahead and give us something we can really hang our head on,” she said Thursday.
Kelly attended the recent public meetings in Cobb about ethylene oxide emissions from the local Sterigenics plant, including an Aug. 19 forum at the Cobb County Civic Center in Marietta that drew a crowd of over 900 people.
“I, and I think a lot of other school directors and such, expected to come away from that meeting feeling more secure and the reality is that just wasn’t the case and I was just shocked at how little information there was to go on,” she said. “We’ve had two or three parents that have had multiple bouts of cancer in the time that they’ve been here and something like this opens up a whole lot of emotions — these kids are going home to anxious parents who don’t know if they should stay or go.”
It was only on July 19 that a WebMD and Georgia Health News article publicized the increased cancer risk in census tracts near the sterilization plant, from the findings of a National Air Toxics Assessment that was published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency a year earlier in 2018.
The assessment, based on modeling data, estimated that around Smyrna, ethylene oxide causes about 70 of the 114 extra cases of cancer for every million people exposed over their lifetimes.
The state’s acceptable area concentration for the chemical is one additional case of cancer for every one million exposed, but in Smyrna the company’s emissions are 27 to 61 times higher than that.
Even though the Georgia EPD immediately started to keep a closer eye on the Cobb Sterigenics facility when the 2018 report came out, it did not alert the public to the likely dangers, and continued to permit Sterigenics’ operations as they satisfied the necessary stipulations in the federal Clean Air Act.
Sterigenics is only required to self-report its emissions, although the company claims its Cobb facility is audited unannounced about 40 times a year, and it is this self-reporting that the Georgia EPD relies on in determining whether the firm’s operations are legal.
That is just one of several major concerns on the minds of many living and working near the plant, now aware that ethylene oxide causes cancer, based primarily on a yearslong health study of over 18,000 workers in the sterilization industry.
That study, by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, found no overall elevated risk for cancer or other diseases, but did see evidence of an elevated risk for blood cancers among men and breast cancers among women.
It’s worth noting Smyrna and surrounding neighborhoods have been a hotbed of real estate activity in the past few years as Cobb’s population has grown, pushing up demand for homes.
The market hotness index by Realtor.com identified Smyrna has the hottest zip code in the county and the second hottest in the wider metro area in real estate terms, with Kennesaw and Marietta zip codes in the next spaces down respectively.
Data shows Cobb had 1,314 new property listings worth a combined $467 million in July 2019, and there were 9,583 new property listings in the county during the first half of this year, worth a combined $3.5 billion, indicating a 13.7% increase on the previous corresponding period.
Sterigenics has signed a legally binding agreement with the Georgia EPD to voluntarily reduce its annual ethylene oxide emissions from the current level of around 260 pounds to around 40 pounds.
Work to improve emissions control and capture systems within the facility started on Aug. 26 and was initially expected to finish in the first week of January 2020.
But the company announced Friday it was expediting the process and work should be finished by the first week of October, until which time all sterilization and use of ethylene oxide at the plant will cease to allow for the improvements.
Before then the Georgia EPD and the local government-commissioned independent air testing firm GHD may have the first results back from the air samples they are collecting around the plant over coming weeks.