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In Smyrna, a Sterigenics plant, which sterilizes medical equipment, sits tucked into a low-slung industrial area next to The Light Bulb Depot and a doggie day care. The Garden, a shelter for homeless women and children, is across the street.

A government agency will look into the health effects of the Smyrna area plant that has some residents worried about cancer-causing emissions, if Atlanta Board of Education Chairman Jason Esteves gets his way.

In a letter dated July 31, Esteves officially requested the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, evaluate the impact of the plant’s ethylene dioxide emissions. Sterigenics uses that chemical to sterilize medical equipment, including radiological syringes, surgical gowns and IV administration sets, but the Environmental Protection Agency classified ethylene oxide as a human carcinogen in 2016.

Sterigenics has said the plant follows federal guidelines guiding emissions and recently gained approval by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to install further emission-reducing technology.

Some neighbors don’t buy that. Their worries were sparked after Georgia Health News and WebMD published a July report citing an estimate that ethylene oxide will cause 114 extra cases of cancer for every million people exposed over their lifetimes in the area around the plant.

The ATSDR is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services tasked with protecting the population from hazardous substances.

In his letter, which was addressed to ATSDR Regional Director John Wheeler and Petitions Coordinator Sven Rodenbeck, Esteves said the agency conducted a similar investigation into a Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook, Illinois.

“(They) found an elevated cancer risk for residents and off-site workers in the community surrounding the facility. … Understanding the likelihood that similar risks exist here for communities that surround the Cobb County facility, including those within the jurisdiction of Atlanta Public Schools, an evaluation by ATSDR is critical,” he wrote.

Cobb County School Board member Randy Scamihorn said he personally would not rule out voting to request such a study if it were to come up on the agenda, but he would like to see the results of another study before he makes that decision.

Last week, Smyrna city and Cobb County officials announced they will hire a private testing firm to sample the air around the plant. County commissioners are expected to finalize the plans at their Aug. 13 meeting.“I would say we should wait and see what Smyrna says and then, if necessary, we can go from there to a totally independent agency to confirm whatever Smyrna may find. … This is getting into what-ifs, which I don’t like, but what if Smyrna does it and the study comes up with no results? In other words, it’s totally safe? Will everybody just accept that? I’m not sure, and that’s why it may need a second study to confirm.”

Scamihorn added that he was only speaking for himself, and that the school board had not discussed the matter, nor was it scheduled for the upcoming meeting.

Board member Brad Wheeler declined to comment without speaking with the rest of the board.

“I’m the vice chair and I represent west Cobb,” he said. “I can’t say we’re going to do this and everyone jumps on board. If the board is going to make any statement on this, I would think the entire board would have to weigh in on it. I don’t know what other people’s feelings are, they may be in favor, they may be opposed. … I would refer you to Mr. (David) Chastain, he’s the chair of the board.”

Chastain did not respond to the MDJ’s request for comment Sunday, nor did members David Banks or Charisse Davis.

Board member Jaha Howard said he could not comment at the moment but added that he hopes to have more to report soon.

Board member David Morgan also declined to comment, saying Sunday is his day off and his time to unplug.

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(1) comment

Tom Hamm

School Board, what's your priorities? This company's plant in Illinois was closed because of that state's concerns. I would think the health of school children should be of high concern.

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