Fulton County commissioners will spend $69,300 to test the air for a carcinogenic gas near a south Fulton industrial facility.
Ethylene oxide, a chemical used to sterilize medical equipment and some food products, has come under fire in recent months.
The cause for alarm was disclosure of a 2018 EPA report that identified two census tracts in Fulton near the Sterigenics facility in Smyrna that showed the potential for elevated risk of cancer from ethylene oxide exposure. Testing is being done in that area to determine how prevalent ethylene oxide is in Cobb County, Smyrna and Atlanta.
The Fulton County testing will take place within a five-mile radius of Sterilization Services of Georgia, a plant on Boat Rock Boulevard in Fulton's unincorporated area which also uses ethylene oxide in its business. A spokesperson for the company said she had no comment on the county's decision.
Pamela Roshell, Fulton's deputy chief operations officer, said the county plans to test the air in 10 locations, but she does not know the exact locations yet. GHD, the company that is providing the testing around Sterigenics, will conduct the Fulton testing.
Roshell said it will be at least a week before testing begins. Once the testing starts, it will last for 14 days and take place for 24 hours a day.
The county plans to use public right-of-way and other public sites as air-testing locations so as not to further delay the tests by getting permission from private owners, Roshell said. GHD will determine the locations with a panel of air quality and environmental law experts, and others. That group will take wind direction and other variables into account when deciding what areas should be tested.
Roshell called the testing both necessary and beneficial.
"From a health perspective, this will give us some information about the levels of ethylene oxide that are emitted," she said.
Dick Anderson, the Fulton County manager, said representatives from the state’s Environmental Protection Division will help analyze the results. But he said the final numbers may provide more questions than answers.
"We lack the jurisdiction for air quality control, much less to shut down" a business, Anderson said.
Sterilization Services of Georgia sits about 500 feet from the county border with the city of South Fulton. South Fulton mayor Bill Edwards said Wednesday that he was familiar with company, and wanted to find out more.
“[If] somebody has something like that in our air, it’s really a no-brainer. We’re not going to tolerate it,” he said.
Roshell said ethylene oxide is considered undetectable when fewer than 0.04 parts per billion are detectable in the atmosphere.
“I think we all hope you’ll find virtually nothing,” Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann said. “That would give us comfort.”
The company had already agreed to install additional pollution controls to address concerns over the emissions, state regulators said. In 2015, Sterilization Services of Georgia was cited for failing to report a hazardous material spill after releasing an unknown quantity of ethylene oxide into the atmosphere.
Sterilization Services of Georgia had applied to the EPD to expand its operations. In a letter earlier this month, the EPD asked the company to install back vents controls to reduce emissions of ethylene oxide at the facility and to submit a new application later this month.
Staff writer Ben Brasch contributed to this story.
THE STORY SO FAR
Fulton County has agreed to test the air around a Fulton Industrial plant for ethylene oxide. In recent months, the gas has stoked community fears as a carcinogenic threat. Air testing is already taking place in Cobb County, Smyrna and Atlanta, in the area around Sterigenics, another company that uses the chemical.
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Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com