August 19, 2019 Marietta: Hundreds of opponents hold signs in opposition as Cobb officials and environmental regulators hold a town hall and community forum in the wake of reports that Cobb and Fulton have high levels of carcinogenic gas on Monday, August 19, 2019, in Marietta. A user and emitter of the gas, Sterigenics, which sterilizes medical equipment, operates in the area. Curtis Compton/
Photo: Compton
Photo: Compton

Ethylene oxide and an environmental ‘apology’ tour

The peace offering from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency included a tray of after-dinner mints.

On Monday night, perhaps a thousand people gathered in the Cobb County Civic Center in Marietta to hear representatives of two government agencies charged with protecting the environment — one state, one federal — offer an apology.

Or something in that general direction.

If you’ve paid attention, you already know the background. Last month, a team of health care journalists reported that in 2016, the EPA added ethylene oxide to its list of cancer-causing substances.

In gas form, the substance is used to sterilize pre-packaged medical devices because of ethylene oxide’s ability to penetrate solid wrappings of paper and plastic.

Two years later, the same agency flagged more than 100 census tracts across the country with elevated cancer risks – driven by ethylene oxide.

Several are along the Cobb-Fulton county border, not far from Sterigenics, a 30-worker medical sterilization facility that uses ethylene oxide. Another census tract was in Covington, east-southeast of Atlanta, near Becton Dickinson, another sterilizing facility.

The state Environmental Protection Division knew about the spikes. The two companies knew about the spikes. Residents didn’t. The state EPD now says it was fixin’ to get ready to tell people when WebMD and Georgia Health News broke the news.

You know you’ve screwed up when the governor of Georgia loudly places himself among the uninformed.

“At the end of July, my administration was made aware of elevated levels of ethylene oxide in Covington and Smyrna,” Kemp said in a video released last week. “As a parent I understand why local families are worried. The results are confusing, the news coverage is frightening, and the public has been left in the dark. This situation is simply unacceptable.”

Kemp had a trio of aides at the Marietta meeting, but wasn’t there in person. Rafts of other state and local elected officials did show up – too many to name, actually. But when Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore and Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts both cross the Chattahoochee River, you know it’s important.

On the heels of that video from the governor, the state EPD last week announced it would begin several months of testing ethylene oxide levels in the air around Covington and Smyrna.

Even so, neither ethylene oxide nor suspicion is corralled by boundary lines. The Atlanta City Council on Monday approved legislation to allow the city to pool resources with Cobb County and the city of Smyrna to conduct their own independent tests.

That’s about $133,000 worth of mistrust right there.

August 19, 2019 Marietta: A summa canister used to collect air samples sits on a table at the EPA & EPD booth as Cobb officials and environmental regulators hold a town hall and community forum in the wake of reports that Cobb and Fulton have high levels of carcinogenic gas on Monday, August 19, 2019, in Marietta. A user and emitter of the gas, Sterigenics, which sterilizes medical equipment, operates in the area. Curtis Compton/
Photo: Compton

For two hours prior to the 7 p.m. meeting, attendees were invited to speak one-on-one with EPA, EPD and other officials – an attempt to lower the temperature of the event to follow. The mints at the EPA table were a nice touch.

The meeting itself was placed in the hands of a professional “facilitator” from a nonprofit called the Consensus Building Institute — another effort to keep emotions holstered. All questions were written.

Nearly an hour went by before the fundamental issue was addressed: Why didn’t you tell us?

“I hear you. I hear that you feel like we should have talked to you long before that. I hear,” said Karen Hays, chief of the air protection branch of the state EPD, to a scattering of applause.

“So our focus, right or wrong,” Hays quietly continued, was to take the EPA’s general findings and “find out what was going on, on the ground. We were completing that project when the WebMD article was released.”

That wasn’t an apology. But a professional facilitator might call it a healthy, public acknowledgement of the disparity in outlooks that can exist between data collectors and the guinea pigs they study.

Hays’ federal equivalent on the stage was Ken Mitchell, the deputy director of the air and radiation division for the EPA’s southeast office.

Mitchell actually spoke first, but he had said more during an earlier interview with my Journal-Constitution colleague J. Scott Trubey and myself. And so we will go with that.

“This has been a great learning experience for me. That’s one thing I’ll say,” Mitchell began. Like Hays, he described the EPA’s 2018 list of 109 census tracts with an elevated risk as a “50,000-foot look” at a situation.

“It doesn’t tell you that there is a problem, only that there might be one that you need to look at more closely. And that’s what Georgia EPD has been doing,” he said.

“It’s a tightwire that you walk. Do you tell people and cause alarm with a screening level analysis?” Mitchell asked. “Or do you go and get harder facts on the ground that lets you determine if there really is a problem – and then you should tell people about it.

“I don’t know that there’s a right answer. But I will say that having gone through this experience with ethylene oxide and people’s feelings about it — which are absolutely legitimate – I think the next time…we’ll be a lot more thoughtful about how we communicate early and often,” he said.

Again, not an apology. But closer.

The bottom line for those living around the Sterigenics plant near Smyrna: “In residential areas, as of today, it doesn’t look like there is any significant issue,” Mitchell said. “For the business owners next to the facility, they are somewhat elevated. Nothing that looks like an acute problem, but slightly elevated with regard to chronic, long-term risk levels.”

Some additional equipment the company has promised to install within the next few months should make everyone happy, he said.

After the meeting that would follow, state Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, and state Rep. Erick Allen, D-Vinings – both of whom represent the area around the Sterigenics plant — called on Governor Kemp to shut down the sterilization facility until testing can prove it is not violating emissions regulations for ethylene oxide.

But the legal machinery may not be there, and Georgia’s health industry is likely to oppose such a move — the use of the gas could be that prevalent across the state.

I casually mentioned to Mitchell that I’d been told that some Georgia hospitals use ethylene oxide in their own sterilization operations.

May use,” Mitchell corrected me. “We’re not really sure how many of them do use it, because they’re small enough that they don’t have to — there’s not any [reporting] requirements for them.

“So we don’t really know how many of them are using ethylene oxide. Dentist offices, too,” he added.

I’ll just leave that thought parked right there.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.