Brenda Goodman is a senior news writer for WebMD. Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News.
Oct. 22, 2019 -- Georgia is poised to become the second state in the U.S. to force the shutdown of a commercial sterilization facility after air testing found high levels of toxic ethylene oxide gas in nearby neighborhoods.
Late Monday, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr filed a motion for a temporary restraining order against Becton Dickinson, or BD, which sterilizes medical equipment at a plant in Covington, 30 miles east of Atlanta. The motion names Georgia Environmental Protection Division Director Richard Dunn as a plaintiff.
The state’s move -- which seeks to pressure BD to reduce its toxic releases before reopening -- stunned environmental advocates.
Over 2 decades of working on environmental issues in Georgia, “I’ve never seen this happen,” said Kurt Ebersbach, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
In February, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker sealed a Sterigenics facility in the Chicago suburb of Willowbrook after tests showed high levels of the cancer-causing gas in outdoor air. The state let that facility reopen, but the company’s landlord declined to renew its lease. In response, the company, which had been under intense pressure from local grassroots activists for a year and was the defendant in dozens of lawsuits, said it had made a business decision not to return.
Pritzker is the Democratic governor of a state that voted Democratic in recent presidential elections. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is the Republican governor of a state that President Trump won in 2016.
Georgia is also known for its business-friendly regulatory climate. BD employs more than 900 people at its Covington facility, making it the third largest employer in Newton County.
BD called the state’s legal action “an unnecessary move.”
“We will vigorously defend the company and patients’ ability to access critical medical devices using science-based evidence to ensure that patients are not harmed from unnecessary decisions by the State of Georgia that are not based on sound legal or scientific grounds,” the company said in a statement Monday evening.
The company said Kemp, the state Environmental Protection Division (EPD), and Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston “are ignoring science and facts and may be creating a risk to the health and safety of patients.”
The EPD “has aided consistent misunderstanding and misplaced public hysteria about ethylene oxide,” BD said in its statement.
BD says it sterilizes 250 million medical devices annually at its facilities in Covington and Madison, GA.
“There is not enough capacity in the North American sterilization network industry-wide to make up for the loss of BD facilities in Georgia. This is not something that can be simply ignored as if it does not affect Georgians, because it certainly would,” the company said in an Oct. 17 letter to Kemp.
After WebMD and Georgia Health News published a story in July that highlighted potential pollution problems around the plant and elevated cancer rates in the area, some were skeptical.
But last week, after receiving full results of air testing around the facility, Johnston asked BD to shut down until they could install and test new pollution controls for the toxic gas. The company refused, citing a “fundamental misunderstanding on how to interpret air monitoring results.”
“There are absolutely no short- or long-term risks that would necessitate any reduction in operations at the site,” according to a letter BD sent to the Johnston and reporters.
On Monday night, the news of the state’s petition drew applause and cheers from those attending a City Council meeting.
“I am thrilled that we have gotten the support of the entire state. We no longer are fighting by ourselves,” Johnston said. “We are going to work with Bard or BD to truly get a great solution for this community.”
Ethylene oxide is a toxic gas that causes cancer by silently damaging DNA. In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said breathing even tiny amounts of the gas over a long period of time could increase a person’s risk of certain types of cancer, particularly breast cancer and blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma. It can also irritate the eyes, skin, nose, throat, and lungs. And it harms the brain and nervous system, leading to symptoms like headaches, numbness, and memory loss.
For decades, it has been used to sterilize medical supplies, drugs, and even spices with little public notice.
In 2018, an EPA report flagged 109 census tracts across the nation where toxic gases created higher-than-acceptable cancer risks. Most of that risk was driven by just one chemical: ethylene oxide.
Three of those census tracts are in metro Atlanta: Two are in Fulton County northwest of Atlanta near the town of Smyrna and a sterilization company called Sterigenics. The third census tract is in Covington near BD.
Air testing results released last week showed high levels of ethylene oxide in two neighborhoods close to BD: Settler’s Grove and Covington Mill. The average concentration measured in Settler’s Grove over a week in September was 4.08 micrograms per cubic meter, 204 times the EPA’s level of concern. In Covington Mill, the average level of ethylene oxide measured over the same week was 6.45 micrograms per cubic meter, 323 times as high as the EPA’s level of concern. Experts agree that a week of testing isn’t long enough to fully gauge health risks to residents. The EPD plans to do more testing in the area for months.
Atlanta also has a third commercial sterilization company in south Fulton County: Sterilization Services of Georgia. That company stopped reporting its emissions to the federal government in 2002. As a result, they were not included in the EPA’s latest report. Fulton County and the EPD are now testing the air in neighborhoods around Sterilization Services.
Sterigenics voluntarily entered into a consent order with Georgia environmental regulators in August. The facility closed for construction later that month to install new pollution controls. It remains shut down while the company works to comply with Cobb County’s fire and building codes.
Last week, attorneys general from 15 states and the District of Columbia signed a letter to the EPA urging the agency to “promptly propose and finalize” stricter standards for ethylene oxide emissions in the U.S. Those standards, which were expected over the summer, have been delayed after intense lobbying by the medical device and sterilizing industries.
At the Covington City Council meeting Monday night, audience members thanked the mayor and council for taking action to reduce emissions.
Gene Wills, who lives in Newton County, told council members that “I believe we’re at the point we can’t trust [BD]. I believe it’s time for BD to find a new home.”