This story is jointly reported by Brenda Goodman of WebMD and Andy Miller of Georgia Health News.
July 25, 2019 -- Twilight was falling, but the heat would not let up.
Cars packed the tiny parking lot for the historic red brick building that sits on a corner of North Church Lane, between Smyrna and Atlanta, their tires crunching through white gravel. When space ran out, they spilled down side streets.
People approached solemnly.
“Where do you live?” they asked each other. Then, after a nod of recognition, “I’m sorry.”
They came from the stately mansions that overlook the Chattahoochee River. They came from brand-new, freshly painted townhomes. They came from apartment communities and single-family homes. Some had just moved here. Some had lived here for years. Some were trying to sell their homes and leave. They all live near a plant called Sterigenics, which sterilizes medical equipment.
Now they were stuck with the same problem: dirty air.
Everyone was struggling to absorb news that broke last week that state and federal environmental regulators had flagged certain neighborhoods in the area as having higher cancer risks because of a toxic gas called ethylene oxide.
In the Smyrna area, which straddles Cobb and Fulton counties, the ethylene oxide comes from Sterigenics, which uses the gas to sterilize medical products and supplies, drugs, and spices. In Covington, which sits east of Atlanta, the ethylene oxide comes from a plant called BD, formerly Bard.
For decades, the small building where they gathered was a church, its walls ringing with the exhortations of primitive Baptist preachers. But the church was sold in the 1980s to the Atlanta Freethought Society, which encourages its members to “dare to think for yourself.”
On Wednesday, the society waived the $75 rental fee so the community could gather to hear a very different kind of evangelist: Margie Donnell, a petite blond attorney and mom from suburban Chicago, who, with her neighbors, has been fighting a Sterigenics plant where she lives.
Donnell’s friend and fellow activist, Neringa Zymancius, flew in from Illinois to join her in speaking to the Georgia group, which had lately inundated their Stop Sterigenics Facebook page with questions.
Tony Adams, a Smyrna-area resident for 12 years and a massage therapist who has taken on the daunting task of trying to turn the worries and anger of his neighbors in recent days into community action, joined Donnell and Zymancius at the podium.
People squeezed into every available seat. When space in the pews and chairs ran out, they stood against the walls and sat in the aisles.
For more than 2 hours, they leaned forward as they sat in heat that approached 90 degrees, red-faced and rapt. Some took notes in the margins of news stories they’d printed from their computers.
Before they started, the Illinois visitors stood with the crowd behind them and sent live video to the Stop Sterigenics Facebook page.
“Thanks for being here tonight,” Adams said. “I wish we didn’t have to be here.”
Bracing his arms on both sides of the podium, he explained that he grew up in the small town of Fort Valley, GA, that had been polluted by the Woolfolk Chemical Works. The plant was right next to his parents’ shop.
“You could smell the chemicals every day,” he said.
When he was 16, he said, “I watched my mom suffer and die from cancer at 52.” He said he’d also lost numerous high school friends to cancer before they were 30 to 40 years old. “The cancer rates in my hometown were off the charts,” he said. “It took 15 years for the EPA to shut that chemical facility down and declare it a Superfund site.”
“I swore as a 16-year-old,” he said, emotion choking his voice. “If I ever felt that I was being put in that situation again, I was not going to sit around a wait for somebody to do something.”
“I’m sorry if some of you are upset with me because of our property values,” he said. “This is bigger than North Church Lane.”
Veterans of the Fight
Donnell stepped up to the podium in a Stop Sterigenics T-shirt and white pants.
“First let me say that Neringa and I will stay here as late as you all need us to. Until the very last person has their question answered, we will not leave,” she said.
Donnell explained that although she works as an attorney, she wasn’t here in that capacity.
“I’m a volunteer community member, part of this grassroots organization,” she said. She said she happened to be in Atlanta to visit her company’s corporate headquarters when the news of the Smyrna and Covington pollution broke.
“We all have other jobs,” she said.
Her message was blunt: Be loud. Be persistent. Get the air tested. Without air testing, she explained, you don’t really know what’s going on. She was girding them for battle.
“I remember the first meeting, the first town hall we had. I was sitting down just like you,” said Zymancius, whose red curls bobbed on top of her head while she spoke.
“I’m a mom. I live in Darien. I bought my first house. I did my research. I wanted the nicest neighborhood. In Darien, literally, the motto is ‘A nice place to live.’ ” She said.
“I looked at the water. I looked at everything. I never look at the air, because who would sit here in America right now to think that we are being poisoned and the government is allowing this to happen?”
“Nobody here,” she said. “Nobody in Willowbrook. Nobody in Chicago, nobody in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Nobody in New Orleans. Nobody in Michigan. These are all towns that are going through the same thing. We were all surprised just as you all are sitting here right now. My bubble was burst that day.”
According to reporting from the Chicago Tribune, half a million people live in census tracts the EPA has identified as having higher than acceptable risks for cancer caused by ethylene oxide.
Now, Zymancius regularly texts with Erin Brockovich, the environmental activist famously portrayed on screen by Julia Roberts, who sent a message of support to the meeting.
“I’m with them and here for full support,” read the text. People stepped up to take photos of it.
Many people had already called or emailed the EPA and Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division. Some had spoken to doctors at the CDC.
Most had already gotten the same kinds of canned answers: We’re looking into it.
In a statement, Georgia's Environment Protection Division said it expected the EPA to impose new rules on sterilizing plants this summer. Until that happens, though, the state says it will "continue to work with both facilities on voluntary measures to further reduce ethylene oxide"
Faye Sullivan, 76, says she has lived in the area for 50 years. She moved in the same year as the moon landing. She came to the meeting because news about the chemical had suddenly recast family tragedies in a different light: Her husband died of cancer; her son had died of a brain tumor; and her daughter was just 43 when she got breast cancer. Now she was wondering if ethylene oxide was responsible.
So far, the state’s modeling results based on self-reported emissions from the companies show the cancer risks in Georgia appear to be lower than those predicted at first by the EPA. Still, the state’s models show that both companies are exceeding the state’s annual acceptable area concentration (AAC) for ethylene oxide, the level where health risks begin to rise.
In Covington, ethylene oxide concentrations around the BD plant are 17 to 97 times higher than the state’s AAC. In the Smyrna area, they are 27 to 61 times higher in neighborhoods around the Sterigenics plant.
According to the EPA, ethylene oxide causes cancer. It is most closely linked to breast and blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma. Long-term exposure is also tied to other brain and nervous system effects like headaches, memory loss, and numbness.
After the last stragglers had finally filed out, Donnell and Zymancius led a small group over to the Sterigenics plant, which was minutes away.
In a statement sent to WebMD and Georgia Health News, Sterigenics said, “The Sterigenics Smyrna facility already meets and outperforms all current permit and regulatory requirements today. We plan to implement additional emissions controls that would further capture and control emissions from this facility.” The company also said the Smyrna facility has been in operation since the 1970s.
BD, the sterilizing plant in Covington, said their pollution control equipment destroys more than 99% most of the ethylene oxide they use before it reaches the air. They say the gas they release has always been within legal limits.
In DuPage County, IL, yesterday, where Sterigenics is trying to reopen its plant, which has been sealed since February, a judge put off the reopening of the plant for another month to consider arguments in the case from surrounding communities.
As they stood in the street, in the dark, bathed in the glow of street lamps, the Illinois activists posted another live video to social media.
“It is absolutely appalling that Sterigenics is here doing the exact same thing as they did in Willowbrook,” said Zymancius, staring into her phone.
“We want Sterigenics to know that we’re here now, and we’re not going away,” said Donnell.