09/25/2019 — Covington, Georgia — The exterior of Becton, Dickinson and Co.’s facility in Covington, Wednesday, September 25, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Opinion: Ga. steps up to safeguard health

When it comes to protecting public health, acting belatedly is better than not acting at all.

Thus, it’s welcome news that the state of Georgia went to court last week to demand a temporary shutdown of a Covington facility that sterilizes medical instruments using a gas that’s considered a carcinogen.

The state’s authoritative action in recent days is a deep contrast to previous efforts by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division that seemingly amounted to a strategy of bureaucratic foot-dragging paired with a belief that what the public doesn’t know probably won’t hurt, or scare, them.

That stance might still have been in place had not journalists from WebMD and Georgia Health News dragged into light the matter of ethylene oxide exposure from sterilization plant emissions. The public outcry that followed has yielded overdue change for the good, it seems.

We’re glad that the earlier, wrongheaded philosophy has been put away and that the EPD, and Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr are now moving assertively in court to force improved operating procedures at a sterilization plant operated by New Jersey-based Becton Dickinson (BD).

As reported in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Attorney General Carr filed a legal complaint Monday in Newton County Superior Court on behalf of Gov. Brian Kemp and state environmental regulators, citing a recent leak of the toxic gas. The complaint alleges violations of the Georgia Air Quality Act and faults BD for failing to properly report the leak of 54.5 pounds of ethylene oxide from Sept. 15-22.

The complaint asks the court to temporarily shut down the Covington sterilization operation until the company can prove it is operating safely and legally. The state asserts that “the EPD has worked diligently to encourage BD to reduce its ethylene oxide emissions at the Facility as soon as possible. But, EPD’s efforts have been to no avail. Despite public statements of being cooperative, BD has not been a cooperative partner with EPD.”

The legal argument goes on to allege that the company either failed or refused to acknowledge the necessity of acting quickly to reduce ethylene oxide emissions.

The company strongly denies this and has warned the state’s stance could put patients in need of clean medical devices at risk.

A bit of history is in order here. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 reclassified ethylene oxide as a known carcinogen. In 2017, the EPA released preliminary results of what’s called an National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA). Potential “hot spots” were noted to Georgia officials. In 2018, the EPA released its NATA report, noting three Georgia areas near ethylene oxide-using facilities had potential for higher cancer risks. Georgia EPD kept quiet on the matter until reporters published news of the findings.

With that official silence and underwhelming lack of response behind us now, we’re pleased that Georgia seems to be stepping up strongly to demand better of BD and other operators of sterilization facilities in the state.

Recent reporting by this newspaper showed too that other states with similar sterilization plants acted far more quickly and authoritatively than Georgia to both publicize the EPA’s findings, as well as assess, and act to reduce reported ethylene oxide emissions.

We’d note too that the state’s legal action comes after the City of Covington made a similar request of BD this month, but was rebuffed. That was a gutsy move for a city and county that had publicly recognized the significant economic value of the plant and its jobs.

The state and Covington’s moves stand out amidst a broad, longstanding governmental regulatory environment that is proudly pro-business. State leaders have continually praised a magazine’s long-running ranking of Georgia as the best state for business, and officials are known for ongoing efforts to reduce regulation of the private sector.

Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with being hospitable to private industry. That strategy has, in general, helped grow jobs and prosperity in this state.

We likewise recognize the societal need for effectively sterilizing the medical devices that have been used on all of us at one time or another. Keeping contamination, infection and disease at bay is of paramount concern to health care providers, as it should be.

Even considering both these points, we believe that Georgia can provide a level of regulatory oversight where needed that is sufficient to maintain a high standard of public safety without throttling private enterprise. Georgians should see as unacceptable having to choose one scenario at the expense of the other.

It’s therefore encouraging that state officials are moving aggressively to demand that ethylene oxide emissions meet appropriate guidelines. Future efforts might also look at factors such as how locations for potentially risky industries are vetted. Placing such operations in the future well away from heavily residential areas seems to have merit, for example.

The state’s various entities, up to and including Gov. Kemp’s office, have acted in recent months toward doing the right things to safeguard Georgians on this issue. We encourage them to continue their efforts, catalog the knowledge gained and use it to build a safer Georgia now and in the future.

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