The exterior of Becton, Dickinson and Company in Covington, Wednesday, September 25, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Covington seeks sterilization plant closure over toxic gas emissions

This story has been updated with responses from BD and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

The city of Covington is asking a local sterilization plant to suspend operations after air monitoring found elevated levels of a carcinogenic gas emitted by the facility in surrounding neighborhoods.

“We are grateful for BD’s presence in our city and realize the number of Covington residents that are employed at BD’s sterilization facility,” Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston said in a statement Wednesday. “However, given the results of our independent air test, the Covington City Council and I have no choice but to ask BD to do the right thing for their employees and neighbors and temporarily cease operations at their Covington sterilization facility until additional safeguards are in place and we have data verifying the efficiency of those safeguards.”

BD is among a handful of sterilizers in Georgia, including Sterigenics, in Cobb County, that are permitted to use the chemical, ethylene oxide, sometimes called EtO, to sterilize medical equipment. However, ethylene oxide has come under scrutiny since the federal government classified it as a definite carcinogen in 2016, raising concerns about potential elevated cancer risks around facilities that use it.

Some of the highest readings were taken at the facility itself and in the Settler’s Grove and Covington Mill areas, with ethylene oxide concentrations reaching 10, 12 and 15 micrograms per cubic meter. Federal regulators say lifetime exposure to 0.02 micrograms per cubic meter could result in an elevated cancer risk, and even Texas state regulators, who have been criticized by environmentalists and public health experts for being industry-friendly, have proposed a safe limit of 7.2 micrograms per cubic meter.

Those thresholds are for sustained exposure over many years, while the air monitoring offers 24-hour snapshots of ethylene oxide concentrations. Still, it appears that all of the samples taken at 11 locations, including several outside Newton County, from Sept. 17 to Sept. 23 show levels well above what federal regulators say is safe.

The preliminary data was also much higher than levels modeled by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, which estimated much lower levels over an extended period based on self-reported emissions. The EPD initially resisted air monitoring before caving to public pressure.

Jason McCarthy, a Covington resident and head of a local chapter of Stop EtO, said he was angry but not surprised that the air tests showed higher-than-expected levels of ethylene oxide.

“What it shows me is their self-reporting numbers are full of it,” said McCarthy. “They are outrageously above where the EPA has set limits that need to be looked at.”

The testing was carried out by Montrose Air Quality Services on behalf of the city of Covington.

BD responded with a letter of its own to Mayor Johnston, saying the city was reacting based on a “fundamental misunderstanding” of air monitoring results, and company said it would continue operations as normal at its Covington facility.

“There are absolutely no short- or long-term risks that would necessitate any reduction in operations at the site,” the letter said.

The company also provided its own air sample test results, which also showed elevated levels of ethylene oxide, along with statements from several scientists downplaying any potential risk from the recorded levels. It also said the results were likely unaffected by a leak that occurred that week.

In a statement, the company acknowledged that the median concentration over a week was 1.2 micrograms per cubic meter — 60 times the government’s screening value, which the company said “does not account for background levels of EtO from other sources, including the human body.”

Since it began monitoring ethylene oxide more closely, the government has recorded ethylene oxide levels above its own screening level even in rural areas, a fact the industry has seized on to argue the threshold is too low.

Richard Peltier, an expert in air pollution exposure at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, described BD’s test results as a limited dataset, “surrounded by a lot of industry-funded deflection.”

“The data show that there indeed is a source of ethylene oxide in the Covington community,” he wrote in an email. “Testing is not yet adequate to rule out the contribution of other sources, but it would probably be a safe bet that most of this ethylene oxide is coming from fugitive emissions from the Covington sterilization facility.”

He said the levels recorded in Covington were similar to those seen in Willowbrook, Illinois, before that state issued a seal order closing a sterilization facility located there.

In a written statement, the Georgia EPD called the air testing results “deeply troubling.”

“Based on these results, EPD will deploy more equipment to double testing frequency and determine what regulatory action may be necessary for the surrounding community’s safety,” it said.

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