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Georgia Residents Demand State Act on Toxic Air

photo of tower that emit ethylene oxide
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Brenda Goodman is a senior news writer for WebMD. Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News.

Aug. 19, 2019 – Why didn’t you tell us?

It was the first question to state and federal environmental regulators addressing hundreds of Metro Atlanta residents Monday night about the dangers of ethylene oxide – a cancer-causing gas being released from a Sterigenics plant northwest of the city that sterilizes medical supplies.

Many in the crowd, mostly from suburban Cobb and Fulton counties, which had been admonished not to yell out, silently held up bright orange signs that said “Say No to ETO.” ETO is shorthand for ethylene oxide.

“Why wasn’t our area informed of this increased risk?’’

A 2018 EPA report found elevated cancer risks in three census tracts in metro Atlanta, including Smyrna and Covington, which is near the BD Bard medical sterilizing plant.

Ken Mitchell, chief of air toxics for Region 4 of the EPA, expressed second thoughts about how his agency handled the data on the elevated cancer risk last year. The agency decided not to send out a press release last August when the results of the National Air Toxics Assessment were posted.

He conceded that this experience has made him think long and hard about “what’s the best way to tell folks about information and when.”

A chorus of “boos” rose from the audience. “Go home!” someone shouted.

Karen Hays, chief of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s Air Branch, spoke more directly.

“I hear you. I hear you. You feel like we should have communicated with you long before this. I hear you,” she said.

In her presentation, Hays said the state was preparing a long-term study of ethylene oxide levels around all the facilities in Georgia that release the chemical. In addition, she said the state had already taken three additional air samples at a monitoring station in southern DeKalb County, more than a dozen miles from the Sterigenics plant near Smyrna. Those samples are being analyzed.

The prevailing theme among the regulators was that more data and more science on ethylene oxide are needed.

The Georgia Department of Public Health said that it is working with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry on studying cancer risks within 1 mile of the Sterigenics facility.

Barry Goppman, who has lived about 3 miles from Sterigenics for about 20 years, said he was disappointed with the evening's presentations.

Goppman, 72, has been a marathon runner and cyclist. He now has chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He wonders if all that time exercising outside led to his cancer.

He said the presenters “were hiding behind scientific terms and government studies. We’re getting lip service.”

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on August 19, 2019


Ken Mitchell, chief of air toxics assessment & implementation, EPA Region 4, Atlanta, GA.

Karen Hays, chief of the Air Protection Branch, Georgia Environmental Protection Division, Atlanta, GA.

Barry Goppman, 72, Smyrna, GA.

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