The saga of Sterigenics – and similar companies – reflects the failures and lapses by environmental agencies that put thousands of people at risk for cancer in the Smyrna and Covington areas.
The story began years ago with inadequate regulation of ethylene oxide (EO) emissions from plants that produce the flammable, colorless gas for chemical compounds such as antifreeze and sterilizing medical equipment. The gas can cause respiratory irritation, lung injury, headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and shortness of breath, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration says. Chronic exposure can damage DNA and affect the functions of the central and peripheral nervous systems.
Those effects are more than enough to dictate the closest regulation, but in addition to such devastating health issues, ethylene oxide “definitely causes cancer,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which changed that classification from “likely to cause cancer” in 2016 after a 10-year study. EO has been linked to leukemia, lymphoid, breast and other types of cancer.
Yet despite the gas being classified as a carcinogen, the legally permissible limit of emissions self-reported by the plants has been far too high for years. The metro-area companies producing the gas are Sterigenics in Smyrna and BD Bard in Covington, which have recently moved to drastically lower their emissions under fierce pressure from residents, legislators and state officials. Bard also agreed to reduce emissions at its plant in Madison, Georgia.
Inexcusably, in 2018 the EPA chose not to issue a news release of its alarming report – deliberately keeping citizens in the dark about the terrible health risks of ethylene oxide. The details of this story came to light only when WebMD and Georgia Health News collaborated in a lengthy, well-documented report on July 19 this year. That report disclosed to the public the EPA’s 2018 assessment of health risks from airborne toxins when the agency flagged 109 census tracts across the country with higher cancer risks because of exposure to airborne toxins.
In Georgia, three affected tracts were identified. They include the Sterigenics plant in Smyrna and the BD Bard facilities in Covington and Madison. The EPA report “estimated that around Smyrna, ethylene oxide causes about 70 of the 114 extra cases of cancer for every million people exposed over their lifetimes,” WebMD and GHN reported. “In Covington, it estimated the gas causes about 170 of 214 cases for every million people exposed. The EPA considers the cancer risk from pollution to be unacceptable when it tops 100 cases for every million people who are exposed to a chemical over the course of their lifetime.” (The report may be accessed at www.webmd.com.)
When that report became public in July, it triggered understandable fear and outrage by people living in the affected areas and led to long-needed action by the offending plants and the state government. More than 900 citizens packed the Cobb County Civic Center to hear from government agencies including the Georgia EPD. Likewise concerned residents turned out for a similar meeting in Covington.
Gov. Brian Kemp got the message loud and clear, meeting with officials of the two companies and pushing for action to clean up the pollution. “My No. 1 job is keeping Georgia families safe,” the governor said, pledging to stay on the case, which he no doubt will do. Very quickly, Sterigenics began a project aimed at lowering EO emissions to two parts per millions versus the legal limit of 100 parts per million. BD Bard followed suit, announcing it would voluntarily spend $8 million to upgrade emissions controls.
These actions show what can be done and, we hope, will lead to the ultimate solution of cutting emissions to zero. Technology now available should enable the companies to do so and sooner rather than later. As Georgia EPD’s Kika Kuoh told a reporter: “We want them to go as far as the technology allows.” So do thousands of residents living in the affected areas. And so does the Marietta Daily Journal.
It’s the least the companies should do.