Laura Barnes of Vinings holds a protest sign as she and others gather near the Sterigenics plant in Smyrna, last August. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Opinion: What they don’t know will likely hurt us

Ethylene Oxide (EtO) is a known carcinogen. It was thus classified in December 2016 by the U.S. EPA after a multi-year study period that included public comment. If you don’t know by now, EtO is the Heisman Trophy winner of sterilization chemicals. It does its job exceedingly well and at low cost to its users. The problem is, it can’t discern between a bacteria that it needs to kill to make a syringe safe to use, and your DNA or mine. It is a single-minded killer.

It’s as important as it is dangerous. Even though the history of Ethylene Oxide (EtO) is much longer, we keep hearing about all the things people don’t know. As early as 1938, scientists were looking at the potential health impacts of EtO as they exploited its highly reactive nature to make exciting things happen — like the production of polyester.

In 1974, a new tenant moved into a nondescript red brick warehouse, a building like thousands around the city. Zoning and air pollution permits were novel concepts at best. Things should have changed in 2019 for the better. Stricter building codes. Greater scrutiny on the use of industrial buildings. Careful study and determination of what does “safe air” and “air quality” mean and regulations designed to protect us. Or have they?

“I don’t know,” and “The science isn’t settled on that…” were frequent refrains heard in a meeting this past Monday of the air-testing oversight committee of Smyrna, as they discussed the chemical half-life of EtO and the efficacy of Sterigenics’ alleged magic emissions curtailing solution. Frankly, they don’t know. It’s never been studied and it’s never been done before. So begins our role as human lab rats.

A 19-page comment letter (replete with 85 pages of source and research citations) arrived in the inbox of Georgia EPD this last week on behalf of our group, Environment Georgia and the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Georgia EPD has been silent. And it’s deafening. Is this in keeping with Ga. EPD tradition to delay, delay more and delay even more in the hopes that the problem just goes away? This isn’t going to just blow over.

Shoulder to shoulder with Sterigenics in that nondescript brick building are two other tenants. Office and design spaces teeming with creative folks generating new ideas for clients. Citizens with families, friends, kids at home. Draw a one-mile radius from Sterigencs and there are over 1,000 households, even more dreams, children at play and a potential for a bright future. But it’s only a bright future if the right questions are asked.

Ethylene Oxide is a known carcinogen.

In a September 13 news story, “Environmental law group: Sterigenics permit application deeply flawed,” the AJC describes the concerns over the Ga. EPD’s accelerated permitting process for the facility. EPD’s “hurry-up” approach eliminated the ability of our community to ever know the amount of EtO in the ambient air of our community. Failing to follow their own process, they also eliminated the opportunity for the public to comment on the permit before its approval.

Based on this rushed approval by EPD, Sterigenics secured a Cobb County construction permit for $2.4 million in improvements. Sounds impressive. After reviewing those plans, our team of environmental scientists, industrial engineers and construction experts have even more questions that should have been asked. We have reviewed these plans and our environmental scientists, engineers and construction experts have a growing list of questions and concerns that were not addressed in the permit process.

If a company is using a chemical that is a known human carcinogen, that is also extremely combustible and that facility is located in a densely populated area, do you skip steps in your process and learn as you go? Wouldn’t you ensure the building is constructed to the highest standards and met all applicable building codes? Isn’t this facility engaged in high-hazard work, or is it merely “storage” as their current certificate of occupancy states. If you form an oversight committee to provide guidance to those conducting the air-testing, do you bring in experts with deep experience, or do you learn as you go?

In its haste to solve the Ethylene Oxide problem, government is attempting to move quickly. Moving quickly cannot be an acceptable replacement for moving assuredly, asking all of the right questions, checking and double-checking, listening to the community and constituents and engaging experts. To date, we see little evidence and this path is unsustainable.

Janet Rau, president, Stop Sterigenics GA

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