Brenda Goodman is a senior news writer for WebMD. Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News.
Oct. 16, 2019 -- The city of Covington, GA, has called for a company to shut down its local medical sterilization plant until it can reduce its emissions of a cancer-causing gas.
In a Wednesday news release, the city said preliminary data from air pollution testing found ethylene oxide levels that were particularly high in two neighborhoods close to the BD sterilizing plant in Covington, 35 miles east of Atlanta.
“We are grateful for BD’s presence in our city and realize the number of Covington residents that are employed at BD’s sterilization facility,” Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston says in the statement. “However, given the results of our independent air test, the Covington City Council and I have no choice but to ask BD to do the right thing for their employees and neighbors and temporarily cease operations at their Covington sterilization facility until additional safeguards are in place and we have data verifying the efficiency of those safeguards.”
City officials said Wednesday that letters were also sent to state and federal environmental agency officials “in an effort to gain support for the Covington community.”
In an interview Wednesday, Johnston called the results “extremely alarming.”
“We need some help,” he said. “We need some leaders in Georgia to stand up and help move this thing forward.”
“During this entire process, I’ve had so many different scientists and subject matter experts talk to me about what’s high and what’s not high, and that’s one of the frustrating things about this whole thing, is that I’m just trying to find the facts,” he said.
“My bottom line is that I live in this community. I’m concerned. I’ve got family and kids here and all that kind of stuff. We just went through a process of trying to get some clarity on what’s really out there.”
In a statement issued late yesterday, Georgia's Environmental Protection Division (EPD) called the results “deeply troubling” and said it would double testing frequency at the plant and “determine what regulatory action may be necessary for the surrounding `community’s safety.”
The agency said it is also working with Gov. Brian Kemp’s office to name an environmental task force looking at the regulation of medical sterilization companies and ethylene oxide use in Georgia.
Neighborhood Ethylene Oxide Levels
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s level of concern for ethylene oxide is .02 micrograms per cubic meter of air, which represents an additional cancer risk of 100 cases for every million people exposed over the course of their lifetime.
The levels of ethylene oxide measured in Covington Mill, a neighborhood that sits southwest of BD, over the 7 days of testing ranged from .6 to 15.3 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The highest level, 15.3 micrograms per cubic meter of air, taken on Sept. 22, is 765 times higher than the EPA’s safe level.
In Settler’s Grove, the closest neighborhood to the east of BD, the levels ranged from nondetectable to 13.8 micrograms per cubic meter of air, which is 690 times the EPA’s level of concern for the chemical.
Richard Peltier, PhD, an associate professor of public health at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, reviewed the air testing results for WebMD and Georgia Health News. He says the results appeared to be “pretty determinative evidence.” He says the chemical was detected in higher amounts when the wind was blowing toward the canisters that were collecting it, and lower when the wind was blowing away from them. The levels at testing sites farther from the BD facility were generally lower than those closer to it.
Shortly before Covington released its test results, BD sent out results of its own tests near the facility. Those results, which were analyzed by a company called Ramboll, showed levels near the BD facility that ranged from .3 to 10.5 micrograms per cubic meter of air from Sept. 17 through Sept. 23.
In its statement, the company said that ethylene oxide can come from many sources, including humans, and disputed the health risk.
“According to four prominent toxicology experts the company engaged to provide third-party insights and analysis, the results do not indicate short- or long-term health risks. These consultants also collectively caution that a week of sampling is a snapshot in time and could be misleading either positively or negatively,” the statement read.
The company had previously reported an 8-day leak at the facility, due to a valve that had accidentally been left open.
The company says it did not think the leak had affected the testing results.
“Given the variability of the results, with many days seeing only background levels of EtO, BD does not believe the unintended release of EtO that BD voluntarily reported had any significant bearing on these results,” the statement says.
The company also presented results of testing ordered by AdvaMed, an industry group that represents medical device makers. The test results showed ethylene oxide measured in everything from charcoal fires, to car engines, to a “freshly opened” container of sauerkraut. No details of the study methods were given.
Johnston says BD had been a good partner to the community and an important employer there. He says he hoped they would voluntarily shut down until new pollution controls could be installed.
If they don’t, he says, he has conferred with a consultant and also with the city’s attorney about next steps.
“We are going to continue to go down every path that we possibly can go down to ensure that the city of Covington is safe for today and as we move forward into the future,” Johnston says.
In a letter sent to Johnston after the interview, BD said it would "continue operations as normal."
"There are absolutely no short- or long-term risks that would necessitate any reduction in operations at the site," the letter read.
Sterilization Plants Under Pressure
Covington’s action comes shortly after another metro Atlanta medical supply sterilization plant that uses ethylene oxide was ordered to remain shut down until it meets new safety requirements from the local government.
Sterigenics, which had been installing new emission control equipment, is fighting that decision by Cobb County. The company recently decided to stop production at a suburban Chicago plant due to community outrage and legislative opposition to the use of ethylene oxide.
The two metro Atlanta sterilizing plants have been under community and political pressure since a July report from WebMD and Georgia Health News identified three metro Atlanta census tracts in federal Environmental Protection Agency data as having a higher cancer risk from air pollution, largely driven by ethylene oxide.
Two of the tracts are in Fulton County, near the Sterigenics facility. The third is in Covington.
The EPA classified the chemical as a cancer-causing substance in 2016.
Community pressure helped lead Covington officials to contract with an independent testing firm to sample the air around the BD plant.
“This is not a decision we took lightly, but when the safety of thousands of residents and BD employees is at risk, the only prudent action is to temporarily cease operations until we can be assured the safety of our community isn’t compromised,” Johnston says in the statement.
Jason McCarthy of a local activist group, Say No to EtO -- Georgia, said Wednesday he is “very pleased to see the mayor proactively call for BD to suspend operations until we can get a handle on the EtO emissions.”
“What the test results seem to show is that as we have contended all along, the self-reporting by BD is not to be trusted,” McCarthy said. “Our greatest fear is that the results would come back and show elevated levels of EtO in the air, and this seems to be the confirmation of just that.”
Covington says the testing firm Montrose Environmental did air sampling at 11 locations from Sept. 17 to Sept. 23.
Those locations included several test sites at the BD sterilization facility, locations near Covington Square, the Covington Mill and Settlers Grove neighborhoods, south Covington, and at the Covington Airport.
To establish baseline readings in the area beyond Covington, testing also was done at the Mount Pleasant area near Highway 11 in eastern Newton County, in rural southeastern Newton County, at a location in the neighboring city of Conyers, and a Georgia EPD facility in south DeKalb County.
The complete Montrose report documenting the monitoring results is being finalized and will be released shortly, Covington officials say.
Full testing results at the Covington plant will be presented Monday at Legion Field.