As the coronavirus causes widespread shortages of medical supplies such as protective gowns and masks, Sterigenics CEO Phil McNabb is asking Cobb County to expedite the process of reopening his company’s medical equipment sterilization facility in Cobb.
The Sterigenics plant located just north and west of the Chattahoochee River near Smyrna shut down in late August to expedite emissions improvements on the facility as requested by the state. This was during a time when concerns from the surrounding community had begun to rise over use of a cancer-causing chemical, ethylene oxide, for sterilization of medical equipment and instruments.
The county imposed in later months a stay on any reopenings. The facility remains closed pending county-initiated third-party investigations into Cobb fire code and building safety concerns, according to Sterigenics officials.
McNabb said prior to the public outcry, the plant had been operating with the blessing of environmental experts and Cobb County officials for more than four decades.
He also said his company’s agreement with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division for installation of $4 million in emissions-reducing enhancements has led to even lower levels of ethylene oxide that would come from the facility, which he said already emitted safe levels of the gas.
McNabb said the facility should be cleared to continue its operations immediately so the company, whose multiple facilities across the globe sterilize approximately a quarter of the world’s personal protective equipment, can contribute to the fight against coronavirus.
“We’ve got what represents probably the most efficient facility, possibly in the world, around the capture and control of ethylene oxide that is right now not operating in time, probably where there’s more focus on the need for medical devices than before,” he said. “And the reason it’s not operating is because of — I’ll call it bureaucracy — around re-looking at through a third party what the county has validated for over 40 years: that the facility has the appropriate certificates of occupancy, it’s a safe facility, and we’re looking for a third party to validate that. That process has been going on for five months.”
Sterigenics officials say the investigation process should have lasted only 30 days.
A fact sheet provided by the company shows that more than 1 million “critical protective gowns” previously sterilized at the Sterigenics facility in Cobb are awaiting sterilization before they can be used.
“Sterigenics is standing by to meet those needs,” the fact sheet states.
McNabb said in addition to protective gear, the company’s facilities sterilize millions of other critical products per day that support COVID-19 treatment, including respirator breathing tubes, IV tubing sets, saline, sterile water, drapes, syringes and other items.
The fact sheet also shows the company has the ability to address the sterilization backlog for items needed to combat the outbreak, as well as the ability to replicate locally a safe and rapid mask sterilization process that has been used in China.
County spokesman Ross Cavitt issued this email statement to the MDJ: “We have had ongoing discussions in the past few days with Sterigenics representatives about the situation as we are both trying hard to address concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 virus.”
He said the county has not yet received a report from the independent third-party experts.
Cobb County Commissioner Lisa Cupid said she supports awaiting the outcome of those reports. Cupid said she does not support putting one public health concern on the back burner in the interest of another. She said she would need to hear experts say that all public health concerns surrounding ethylene oxide have been eliminated before she could support the facility reopening.
Commissioner Bob Ott didn’t respond to the MDJ’s request for comment by press time.
State Rep. Erick Allen, D-Smyrna, said while he would be supportive of reopening the Cobb Sterigenics facility if need be and only during the coronavirus state of emergency, the call to reopen the facility near Smyrna should come from the manufacturers of the medical products in short supply.
Allen said Sterigenics is not a manufacturer of anything, and, as far as he’s been told, the need for protective equipment like gloves, masks and gowns is because of a lack of manufacturing capabilities, not sterilizing capabilities.
However, Sterigenics representatives say there is a shortage of sterilization capability along with the equipment shortage in Georgia that could be addressed by the Cobb facility’s reopening.
Allen said if he were to support the Cobb plant’s reopening during the coronavirus pandemic, it would have to be on advice from medical equipment manufacturers who say specifically that there is no other choice than to open the Sterigenics facility near Smyrna.
Allen concluded by echoing Commissioner Cupid: “You have to be cautious not to trade one public health risk for another.”