08/02/2019 -- Smyrna, Georgia -- Sherry Corey (right) and Laura Barnes (center) protest against Sterigenics near the Sterigenics plant in Smyrna, Friday, August 2, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

State will test toxic gas emissions at two metro sites

Georgia will test toxic gas emissions around two industrial sites in the metro Atlanta area following weeks of public outrage. 

The state Environmental Protection Division announced Friday that it would begin collecting samples in the coming weeks with results expected in early November. The tests will be focused on two medical sterilization plants, one in Covington and one in Cobb County near Smyrna. 

But the sampling plan falls short of what residents and elected officials have demanded: 30-day consecutive testing. Instead, EDP will collect samples every six days from four monitoring locations in each community.

In a statement, the EPD said it is also testing air in areas that are far from any permitted source of the gas, ethylene oxide, after the state’s first air test indicated baseline ambient concentrations are higher than expected. Ethylene oxide is a carcinogen. 

The announcement comes the same week federal health officials said they couldn’t study the impact of toxic emissions on residents without air sampling.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry was responding to a request from State Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, asking the agency to evaluate any potential risks associated with ethylene oxide emitted by the Cobb facility operated by Sterigenics.

“Without air sampling results, public health agencies cannot determine the level of ethylene oxide that people are inhaling or the associated human health risk of the ethylene oxide emissions,” the agency wrote in a letter to Jordan that the senator posted on Twitter. “When appropriate air monitoring results are available, ATSDR will evaluate the results to determine whether the ethylene oxide results emissions might represent a public health concern to the people residing near the facility and, if warranted, make recommendations to protect public health.”

Sen. Jordan wrote in response: “If you weren't convinced that we need air monitoring before, there should be no hesitation now.”

In the absence of state or federal action, the city of Smyrna and Cobb County had pledged to fund independent air sampling around the facility and are in talks with a private consulting firm to do it. 

Following Friday’s announcement by the EPD, spokespeople for Smyrna and Cobb said they would proceed as planned with testing. 

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