Residents continue push for more regulations on Sterigenics, ethylene oxide

Concerns growing over how Georgia officials responded to Sterigenics leaks

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Concerns growing over how Georgia officials responded to Sterigenics leaks

A new, more stringent air permit that would allow Cobb County’s embattled medical equipment company Sterigenics to continue operating has done little to allay the fears of residents living nearby.

Critics of the company voiced their concerns to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division Tuesday during a public hearing the agency held on Sterigenics’ request to obtain a new air quality permit.

Sterigenics has for decades been permitted to use ethylene oxide gas in sterilization processes for medical equipment at its plant off Atlanta Road near Smyrna. But the company has been under heavy public scrutiny since 2019 when its emissions of the gas was flagged in a federal report on elevated cancer risk.

The gas is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a human carcinogen.

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The draft permit under consideration by the EPD will replace the current, less stringent one that’s now in effect, said agency spokesman Kevin Chambers.

The draft permit would limit the annual ethylene oxide emissions to 84 pounds. Chambers said the current permit does not specify a limit, but said the company in 2017 emitted 206 pounds of ethylene oxide. The new permit would also limit the amount of ethylene oxide that can be used at the facility and requires ongoing operation and maintenance of the company’s new pollution controls, Chambers said.

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Tuesday’s meeting was scheduled for 2½ hours but was ended after one hour and about a dozen speakers. Most of the speakers criticized the company’s continued presence in a mostly residential area and its use of a carcinogenic gas they say puts their health at risk.

Todd Smith, who lives about three miles from the plant, said he was diagnosed in June 2019 with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He was 43 at the time and was “in great health.”

When a July 2019 story by WebMD and Georgia Health News cited the federal report on potential increased cancer risks for residents in neighborhoods surrounding the plant, Smith said he wondered if ethylene oxide had contributed to his illness. His questions about the cause of his cancer have compelled him to oppose any new permits for Sterigenics to operate in the area.

“We know that there’s a silent assassin that’s sleeping in our tent,” he said of ethylene oxide.

Daryl Mosby, who has served as general manager of the plant since 2010, said Sterigenics’ Cobb plant and others around the country sterilize more than 20 billion medical products annually — about half of the products that require sterilization in the U.S. The list includes IV tubes, surgical kits, cardiac catheters, gowns and gloves each year. For many of those devices, Mosby said using ethylene oxide for sterilization is the only method that meets U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines.

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Mosby also said third-party testing under EPD’s supervision show the company’s “emissions controls perform significantly better than total ethylene oxide removal requirements established by the EPD.”

“The bottom line is that we are operating the most advanced emissions controls at any sterilization facility anywhere in the world,” he said. “Our facility is safe for those of us who work here and for the surrounding community.”

Some residents are worried that the EPD does not have enough oversight to regulate ethylene oxide and Sterigenics’ operations. Bridget Kurt, who lives about a mile from the plant, said the agency has not imposed any regulations on the transportation of ethylene oxide by trucks.

“This is a very dangerous chemical, it’s highly explosive and it does not belong near my neighborhood and that’s the bottom line,” she said.

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Janet Rau, who lives in Smyrna, added the state should not allow Sterigenics to self-report its ethylene oxide emissions. Instead, the state agency should install its own equipment outside the plant to collect data independently.

“We still don’t have a viable way of ensuring those leaks are being accurately calculated,” she said.

Tony Adams, another Cobb resident who lives less than a mile from the plant, also asked what the consequences would be if Sterigenics violates aspects of the new permit. No answer was provided by the officials.

The plant suspended operations last year to install new pollution controls following public criticism over its ethylene oxide emissions.

Later, the county kept the facility closed, citing the plant being out of compliance with fire code. To help fight the shortage of medical equipment caused by the coronavirus pandemic, former County Chairman Mike Boyce in March signed an emergency declaration to allow the company to resume its work sterilizing medical equipment on a limited basis.

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Sterigenics then filed a lawsuit against the county on the basis that Cobb didn’t have the authority to keep the plant closed. In April, a consent order was approved to allow the company to resume full operations while its lawsuit against county proceeds through the court system.

Chambers told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that no timeline has been given on when a decision will be made on the permit.

The second of two public hearings on the plant’s permit will be held from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday. The meeting can be accessed through Zoom or by phone, and details on how to join can be viewed on EPD’s website.

The deadline for residents to submit comments in writing to the EPD is 4:30 p.m. Feb. 25. Comments can be emailed to epd.comments@dnr.ga.gov with the subject line: Sterigenics Air Quality Permit.