Sterigenics Sept. 3 (21).JPG

The Sterigenics plant in Cobb County typically uses ethylene oxide, a carcinogen, to sterilize medical devices.

A lawsuit has been filed in Cobb County against Sterigenics, its parent company, a client company and seven high-ranking staff. It claims workers were exposed to dangerously high levels of a carcinogen due to the companies’ negligence.

The 53 plaintiff workers, including several deceased staff being represented by family, were all employed at the ConMed Corporation facility at 1250 Terminus Drive in Lithia Springs, where they believe they were exposed over the last decade to high levels of ethylene oxide, a chemical used to sterilize medical equipment, records show.

The ethylene oxide exposure came from medical supplies sterilized at the Sterigenics plant in Cobb County, where the equipment was supposed to have been properly aired out to remove toxic residue before distribution, plaintiffs claim.

Accordingly, Sterigenics, its parent company Sotera Health, ConMed, three local Sterigenics managers and four local ConMed managers are being held responsible for damage, per the 38-page complaint filed Tuesday in Cobb State Court.

Plaintiffs want a jury trial, during which they plan to outline personal harm resulting from their alleged chemical exposure, including medical bills, lost wages and other damages, for which they seek an amount in relief to be determined at trial.

ComplaintThe lawsuit claims Sterigenics and ConMed knew ethylene oxide was dangerous and knew the safe way to air out and distribute medical equipment sterilized with the carcinogen, but failed to follow safety protocols or inform staff of the risks.

Plaintiffs claim ConMed and its local managers lied to them and told them they were exposed to safe levels of ethylene oxide, even going as far as encouraging a private physician to reassure worried workers about their exposure levels, providing false exposure information to health care workers, and removing air quality monitors from the Lithia Springs facility.

ConMed, founded in 1970 with corporate headquarters in New York, is a global medical technology company that specializes in the development and sale of surgical and patient monitoring products and services to physician customers, per its website.

Its Lithia Springs facility in Douglas County, just south of Cobb, is the only ConMed location in Georgia, according to the website, which also lists facilities in California, Massachusetts, Colorado and Florida, as well as overseas.

“According to the complaint, the plaintiffs’ exposure to ethylene oxide occurred in connection with the plaintiffs’ work at ConMed’s medical equipment distribution center, where the plaintiffs unloaded, handled, warehoused and distributed medical equipment received from a Sterigenics facility located in Cobb County,” a news release from plaintiff attorney Jeff Gewirtz stated Wednesday. “The plaintiffs’ injuries include multiple deaths, cancer, tumors, increased risk and or fear of cancer, respiratory, pulmonary, epidermal, hematological, cardiological, neurological and other serious medical conditions.”

ReactionSterigenics provided a statement about the lawsuit to the MDJ on Wednesday, highlighting the fact none of the plaintiffs worked for the company.

“Sterigenics and its employees did not cause any injury to the plaintiffs,” Sterigenics said. “The allegations asserted in this lawsuit against Sotera Health, Sterigenics and Sterigenics’ employees are baseless, and we will vigorously defend against them.”

Sterigenics said the plaintiffs’ claims solely relate to another company (ConMed) and not to the Sterigenics plant in Cobb, where Sterigenics recently spent millions installing “state-of-the-art” emissions controls.

“They (the claims) also do not concern its (Sterigenics’) dispute with Cobb County and its officials or Sterigenics’ right to continue its operations,” Sterigenics said.

Sterigenics filed its own lawsuit, in federal court in Atlanta, against Cobb County and some county staff at the end of March, claiming the county prevented Sterigenics from operating its local facility over health and safety concerns that were not justified.

ConMed said Wednesday it would respond to MDJ questions within two working days.

Janet Rau, who lives near the Cobb Sterigenics plant and is president of the protest group Stop Sterigenics Georgia, told the MDJ she is happy the lawsuit was filed, as group members have long suspected there are unpermitted storage locations, away from known sterilization plants, where unsafe levels of ethylene oxide exist unbeknownst to the public.

Rau cited a recent case in Covington, Georgia, where sterilization firm BD was reprimanded by state authorities in December 2019 for high levels of ethylene oxide at one of its storage warehouses, which was not covered by an air quality permit.

BD told the state it estimated 5,600 pounds of emissions came from its storage warehouse each year, which is almost nine times more than emissions it reported coming from its sterilization plant, and above the state threshold for emissions requiring a permit.

“I don’t believe they (ConMed) have a permit,” Rau said. “It’s highly likely that this place is unpermitted, and if we see the same kind of numbers that we saw from the BD warehouse in Covington, the emissions will be significant.”

ConMed is not listed as one of the six facilities statewide to use ethylene oxide, per the Georgia Environmental Protection Division website.

Sterigenics is one such company, as is BD. Others include Sterilization Services of Georgia in Fulton County, and facilities outside the metro Atlanta area.

Rau said the allegations in the lawsuit support her group’s belief that Sterigenics, ConMed and other companies in the medical sterilization industry are putting profit before people.

“I think it shows the industry, and Sterigenics specifically, for what they are,” she said. “This is an industry that believes it is above the law and consistently flouts local ordinances and state and federal rules and regulations, which it lobbies consistently to change. They are part of what’s wrong with corporations in America.”

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