This story is jointly reported by Brenda Goodman of WebMD and Andy Miller of Georgia Health News.
Sept. 18, 2019 -- Initial testing of the air near a medical sterilizing facility in the Atlanta suburb of Smyrna for the cancer-causing chemical ethylene oxide did not detect it in a large majority of samples.
That was not surprising because the tests took place more than a week after Sterigenics said it stopped its sterilization operation, which uses ethylene oxide. The company voluntarily shut down while it installs new pollution controls intended to limit how much ethylene oxide it releases into the air.
The community testing effort collected air samples for 5 consecutive days in early September.
It was demanded by local residents and government officials, who’ve wanted more information about pollution from the sterilization process since a report in July from WebMD and Georgia Health News. The report said that in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, three metro Atlanta census tracts appear to have a higher cancer risk from air pollution, largely driven by ethylene oxide.
Two of the tracts are in the Smyrna area, northwest of Atlanta, and the third is in Covington, east of Atlanta, where another medical sterilization facility, run by BD, uses ethylene oxide.
The testing company, GHD, told a local oversight committee at a meeting Monday in Smyrna that about 80% of the samples taken earlier this month did not show detectable levels of ethylene oxide.
“This is a very small snapshot of what these levels are,” said Dyron Hamlin, an engineer at GHD. “In general, our observation was that we really didn’t see anything unusual in our initial sampling effort.”
The testing, though, did measure significant levels in five canisters placed south of the plant on the first day of testing.
“I think it’s pretty damning, actually,” said Richard Peltier, PhD, who studies environmental exposure to chemicals at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Peltier reviewed a map of the testing results that was shared at the meeting of the Air Quality Oversight Committee, a group of government officials from three neighboring jurisdictions that are paying for the testing. The map showed test results close to the Sterigenics plant, which sits in unincorporated Cobb County.
The highest levels of ethylene oxide were detected on the first day of testing at five sites just downwind of the facility. They picked up levels ranging from .4 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 7.9 micrograms per cubic meter of air -- in canister No. 13, which was placed south of the facility just over the Fulton County line. Peltier said these results suggest that Sterigenics was the source of the pollution because of their location and the way the wind was blowing.
According to the EPA, cancer risk in an area is unacceptable when it rises above 100 additional cases for every 1 million people exposed over the course of their lifetimes. It says the level of continuous exposure that corresponds to that risk is .02 micrograms of ethylene oxide per cubic meter of air.
The levels detected in the five sites exceed the EPA’s threshold by 20 to 395 times. The farthest monitor to detect ethylene oxide -- in A.D. Williams Park -- is nearly 3 miles south of Sterigenics, according to Google Maps.
Here are the locations of the five sites and the levels they detected on each of the 3 days of testing. Levels are reported in micrograms per cubic meter of air:
- Spink-Collins Park: .55/undetected/undetected
- A.D. Williams Park: .78/undetected /undetected
- Whittier Mill Park: .40/undetected /undetected
- Nickajack Park: 1.4/.22/undetected
- Argos Cement Plant: 7.9/<.072/<.086
Argos Cement is classified as a major source of air emissions, according to the EPA, though ethylene oxide is not one of the air pollutants the company reports releasing.
Hamlin said that in his experience testing air around companies known to release ethylene oxide, the high level they found wasn’t unusual.
“This is a very small snapshot of what these levels are over a single 3-day period,” he said. “I won’t say that that level is out of range of what we’ve seen in other areas with and without sterilizing facilities in operation.”
Many of the Cobb County samples were taken near major roads and highways.
Sterigenics and the American Chemistry Council have said ethylene oxide in outdoor air may come from vehicle exhaust, particularly diesel trucks.
But Hamlin said that based on data from this and other projects, he doesn’t think traffic is a likely source of ethylene oxide. “I can’t say we see a particular influence from the interstate,” he said. GHD is the same company that did air testing for the town of Willowbrook, IL, which is home to another Sterigenics location.
Samples collected there in early February measured levels of ethylene oxide as high as 160 micrograms per cubic meter in outdoor air. The results prompted Gov. J.B. Pritzker to order the Illinois Department of Environmental Protection to seal the doors of that facility on Feb. 15, 2018.
In the weeks after the shutdown, continued testing by EPA showed that levels of ethylene oxide dropped around the plant in Willowbrook but didn’t disappear. Average levels there measured when Sterigenics wasn’t in operation ranged from .09 to .17 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The highest level measured after the plant was sealed was .46 micrograms per cubic meter of air.
In Smyrna, community air testing will resume after Sterigenics restarts its sterilization operation, which it is expected to do in October.
Separately, the state Environmental Protection Division (EPD) on Monday released more results of ethylene oxide testing at its South DeKalb monitoring site, which is miles from Sterigenics and BD and near Interstate 285 southeast of Atlanta.
The agency said last month that the first South DeKalb test revealed an ethylene oxide concentration of 0.309 micrograms per cubic meter of air at that site -- considered a high amount of the chemical.
But the EPD results released Monday showed much lower levels in tests taken August 13 and 16. Those results show that concentrations of ethylene oxide were below the lab’s detection limit of .0452 micrograms per cubic meter of air, the EPD said.
Members of Stop Sterigenics -- Georgia say the testing results around Sterigenics were helpful from a baseline standpoint. But they said an opportunity was missed.
“In a perfect world, we’d like to have testing [results] before they shut down,” said Tony Adams of Atlanta, who lives near the Sterigenics plant. “We’re never going to get that.”
When Sterigenics resumes operations, Adams said, “to get a true reading, [the company] needs to be running at 100 percent. It will be hard to verify that.”
Residents also expressed concerns about the Air Quality Oversight Committee and how it works. The group includes officials from the city of Smyrna, Cobb County, and the city of Atlanta.
The oversight committee has not publicly announced its meetings, nor has it shared the names of its members.
“We continue to feel the lack of transparency with Sterigenics, GAEPD [Georgia Environmental Protection Division], and our local elected officials is alarming,” Adams said.
Stop Sterigenics President Janet Rau said the group asked for representation on the committee but got no response. She says the organization personally asked Cobb County Commissioner Bob Ott and Smyrna City Councilman Derek Norton. The group also asked for representation in a Sept. 2 email, which was shared with WebMD.
Jennifer Bennett, a spokeswoman for the city of Smyrna who sits on the Air Testing Oversight Committee, said the committee had no record of those requests.
“We have no record or recollection of a formal request by Stop Sterigenics -- Georgia to have a seat on the oversight committee. The committee was called by the Mayor [Max Bacon] in spirit of interjurisdictional collaboration in conducting independent and objective independent air quality testing,” she said in written answers to questions from WebMD and Georgia Health News.
Changing What ‘Risk’ Means?
At a meeting in August, the committee discussed an alternative risk value for ethylene oxide that is less protective than the EPA’s value, established in 2016.
The risk value is a measurement intended to protect people from harmful levels of pollution, especially children, who face greater physical harm from environmental exposures than adults. The EPA’s current risk value was developed by the agency’s independent science branch and went through two rounds of independent peer reviews.
The alternate risk value is thousands of times less protective and would allow companies to emit higher levels of pollution. It was developed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and is based on levels that workers might be exposed to if they use ethylene oxide on the job.
The Georgia Chemistry Council, a group that lobbies on behalf of chemical makers, has recently pointed to the proposed Texas risk value as an alternative to the EPA’s.
Bennett, the Smyrna spokeswoman, said in an email that the Texas risk value was “only for a reference point for discussion about the complexity of the issue -- that there are a wide range of views and conflicting perspectives concerning ethylene oxide.”
Asked if the committee planned to use the Texas risk value to interpret the test results, Bennett wrote in an email, “The test results are expected to not need to be interpreted -- they will simply show what the results of the ambient air sampling are (how much is and has been in the air in our area).”
But Smyrna Fire Chief Roy Acree wrote in an email that the test results would be interpreted by a four-member task force. Two of the members -- an attorney and a toxicologist -- do not work for testing company GHD. They are hired consultants being paid by the city and county governments that are sharing testing costs.
The consulting toxicologist, Lucy Fraiser, PhD, once worked as a senior toxicologist for the Texas commission.
The city of Covington, meanwhile, said it plans to begin independent testing around the BD sterilization plant this week. The city plans to test for 7 days and has hired a different company to do the sampling, Montrose Environmental.
Jason McCarthy, of Say No to EtO -- Georgia, which is fighting BD pollution, said Monday that “I believe the plan for testing is about as good as we could hope. They are using a firm that has no conflicts with BD and has equipment that supposedly can measure EtO [ethylene oxide] at a much lower level than the outfit that Smyrna chose.”
BD said Monday that it will invest about $8 million to capture fugitive emissions of ethylene oxide at its Covington facility and another in Madison, GA, about another 25 miles east of Covington. “We committed to these additional emission control improvements in writing through a letter to Gov. [Brian] Kemp that was delivered in person on Aug. 20,” the company said.
Troy Kirkpatrick, a spokesman for BD, said, “this new system to capture fugitive emissions is a novel approach that requires innovation and new configurations of emission capture technologies. Our sites in Georgia will be among the first in the world to capture fugitive emissions at this level.”
Sterigenics signed a consent order with the state this month that promised pollution control improvements at its Smyrna plant. BD’s Kirkpatrick said that’s not a step BD plans to make.
“Consent orders are appropriate when there have been regulatory violations or a dispute with the regulator,” he said. “Neither of those conditions apply to BD. We are in full compliance with our permits, operate substantially below our emission allowance within our permits and have voluntarily and transparently committed to make substantial investments in our facilities to even further reduce emissions.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said five sites were tested for three days. In fact, there are 25 sites and each were tested for 5 days.