EPA to require Sterigenics to self-report toxic emissions

A Cobb County medical sterilization facility will have to self-report its emissions of a cancer-causing gas to a federal toxin database under new requirements announced this week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The plant, operated by Sterigenics, has sterilized medical equipment since the 1970s using ethylene oxide, an odorless gas regulated by the federal government.

The EPA announced the new rules in a Dec. 27 press release, the latest response to the growing public backlash over the facility. In 2016, the EPA determined that the chemical is a more potent carcinogen than previously acknowledged, and the plant near Smyrna was subsequently flagged in a federal report mapping areas with elevated cancer risks.

The new mandate applies to 29 sterilization facilities across the U.S., including eight owned by Sterigenics, that will have to begin tracking their emissions in January 2022 for their first report in 2023. In documents detailing its decision, the EPA wrote that more than 200,000 people live within a five-mile radius of the Cobb facility, including 12,092 children under age 5. There are 50 schools in that radius, as well.

The EPA has long required other facilities that handle more than 10,000 pounds of ethylene oxide to report their emissions to a federal database, known as the Toxics Release Inventory, which tracks pollutants that are released into the air and water. BD, which operates facilities in Covington and Madison, already reports to the database.

Sterigenics did so, too — until it stopped in 2017.

The EPA’s website says the company was not required to report its emissions before now because of a technicality. When Congress created the toxin database in 1987, only companies officially classified as manufacturers were required to report. So even though Sterigenics has handled as much as 40 times the reporting threshold in years past, it was exempt from reporting because its facilities are classified as “support services.”

BD is classified as a manufacturer because it also manufactures medical equipment.

Sterigenics told the EPA it was willing to comply with the reporting requirements, noting that it has provided similar information to the EPA and the state Environmental Protection Division in the past, according to EPA documents. The EPD is reviewing whether to require additional reporting of its own, through Sterigenics’ air permit.

A Sterigenics spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment. The company insists its operations are safe, and says that recent upgrades to its facilities capture more than 99.99% of the ethylene oxide used.