Jenni Shover holds a protest sign while Cobb County officials and environmental regulators hold a town hall and community forum about emissions near Smyrna of a toxic sterilizing gas last August. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Opinion: Lessons in government and chemistry

State and federal officials should gain valuable lessons from their flawed handling of news and problems around a toxic gas used to sterilize medical instruments.

The ongoing public skirmish over use of a gas for sterilizing medical instruments should provide more than a chemistry lesson for Georgia on a substance considered a carcinogen by the EPA.

The most important lesson should be about the role of government in helping ensure public safety through appropriate monitoring and, where necessary, regulation. That may be a tough lesson to absorb in this pro-business state, but public health demands no less, we believe. Partisan philosophical differences should not endanger Georgians’ well-being.

In that regard, it’s encouraging that local and county governments in both conservative- and liberal-leaning jurisdictions have joined together and stepped up in at least one important instance. Gov. Brian Kemp has also made his voice heard. This is precisely what common sense and common purpose should demand.

This matter came to light in July after WebMD and Georgia Health News broke news of a 2018 EPA study that found elevated cancer risks in 109 census tracts nationally – including three in Georgia. The assessment was based on modeling from industry-reported data, not independent air testing.

The elevated risk resulted from the EPA applying a lower threshold for how much exposure to ethylene oxide might be harmful. The EPA did not publicize the study.

That bureaucratic silence was a mistake, we believe, as the report’s findings eventually came to light, thanks to the work of journalists. An EPA regional spokesperson expressed contrition over the agency’s inaction. Americans can only hope the lesson’s been absorbed throughout the agency, and just a chastened press office.

Locally, news of ethylene oxide’s use – and mishaps involving the chemical – have rightly raised concerns, especially from people living near plants in this region. AJC reporters unearthed news of multiple problems at area facilities, including an explosion and leaks of the toxic gas. Plants using the chemical operate near Smyrna, and in south Fulton County, Covington and Madison.

Just as it was news to many that the EPA had reclassified exposure levels of ethylene oxide, everyday citizens were likely unaware that Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division, like the EPA, has largely relied on self-reported emissions data.

That’s in line with what you might expect in a state that touts its business-friendly attributes. Many Georgians would likely agree with us that while this strategy has value as an economic development tool, it should not put people unduly at risk.

Which means that the EPD should do more — consistently — to make our health and safety its top priority. If the agency lacks adequate resources to achieve that non-negotiable target, state lawmakers and Gov. Brian Kemp should find a way to fill any shortfalls. That should hold true even as the state is ratcheting down budgets in the belief that leaner days may lie ahead.

It was unacceptable that it took weeks of public outrage for the EPD to announce it would begin collecting air samples from around medical sterilization plants in Covington and the Smyrna area. And those in fear of toxic emissions were right to complain that the state’s plan for collecting air samples every six days was inadequate. Residents and some elected officials demanded testing for 30 consecutive days, which would seem to provide a broader baseline for assessment. (We’ll note here that we invited EPD to provide its viewpoint for publication; they declined.)

Other governments stepped up more decisively. Smyrna, Cobb County and the city of Atlanta are splitting the $130,000 tab for independent air testing around Sterigenics’ Cobb plant.

And Fulton County commissioners said last week they will pay to test the air 24 hours a day for 14 days around a plant operated by Sterilization Services of Georgia.

Given the furor over emissions, mishaps and potential health risks, some improvements are underway. EPD quickly entered into a consent agreement with Sterigenics, which has temporarily shuttered its Cobb plant to make about $2.5 million in emissions control upgrades. EPD rightly caught criticism for moving at a speed that precluded public comment on the plan. That should not happen again. Public input should be heard. In Covington and Madison, sterilization facility operator BD Bard says it will spend about $8 million on emissions upgrades. The South Fulton operator has also agreed to install additional pollution controls, state regulators say.

As this saga continues, Georgia officials should remember that it was a Republican administration that founded the U.S. EPA 50 years ago. President Richard M. Nixon spoke of pollution in his 1970 State of the Union address: “Clean air, clean water, open spaces — these should once again be the birthright of every American. If we act now, they can be. “We still think of air as free. But clean air is not free, and neither is clean water. The price tag on pollution control is high. Through our years of past carelessness, we incurred a debt to nature, and now that debt is being called.”

We believe that goal can be attained, and without damaging Georgia’s reputation as a great place to do business.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.

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