Brenda Goodman is a senior news writer for WebMD. Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News.
Dec. 19, 2019 -- Georgia environmental officials say a warehouse operated by a medical device company near Atlanta is releasing high levels of the toxic gas ethylene oxide.
The state Environment Protection Division has charged BD with a violation for operating its warehouse without an air quality permit.
BD operates two facilities in Covington, a small town that sits 35 miles southeast of Atlanta. One uses ethylene oxide gas to sterilize medical equipment. The other -- the warehouse -- stores recently sterilized products before they are shipped around the globe.
Under the terms of an October consent order signed with the state, BD was required to estimate fugitive emissions of the cancer-causing gas at its warehouse. Fugitive emissions are those that are not captured or controlled.
Indoor air sample tests at the warehouse “were higher than anticipated,” the company says in a letter to state officials. Based on that air testing, the company estimates that its warehouse releases about 5,600 pounds of ethylene oxide into the air each year.
Facilities that have the potential to release 4,000 pounds of ethylene oxide a year are required to apply for a permit and install pollution controls, which help reduce emissions. But there are currently no emission controls at the BD warehouse, which is about a mile due east of the sterilization facility.
BD has until 1 p.m. Friday to answer the notice. In a statement, BD says it has been open with state and local officials and will respond to the notice on or before the deadline.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp called the warehouse emission results “highly concerning.”
“We are demanding answers from BD to remedy this unlawful activity,” Kemp said in a statement Thursday. “I have directed state officials to act as swiftly as possible to secure compliance, and we are exploring every legal remedy available to us to ensure the health and safety of the surrounding community. Ultimately, we expect the company to comply with our requests and do the right thing for Newton County families.”
The BD warehouse, also known as the Global Distribution Center, stores equipment that has been recently sterilized from the company’s Covington and Madison plants, as well as from other facilities. After sterilization, products will continue to release ethylene oxide into the air for hours or even days, a process called off-gassing.
The 5,600 pounds of estimated fugitive emissions from that facility are more than what’s coming from the sterilizing plant, according to BD’s latest estimates. The company reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that its sterilization facility in Covington released 656 pounds of ethylene oxide into the air in 2018.
The ethylene oxide issue erupted in Georgia after a WebMD and Georgia Health News report in July that detailed the cancer risks associated with the sterilizing gas and the Georgia facilities using it. That report sparked public outrage and scrutiny from officials.
Last year, the EPA identified census tracts in the Smyrna area, just northwest of Atlanta, and in Covington as having higher cancer risks, largely due to the use of ethylene oxide, also known as EtO. Another sterilizing plant using the gas, run by Sterigenics, operates in Smyrna in Cobb County, near the Fulton County line.
The Sterigenics plant has been closed for several weeks until it meets Cobb County fire and building codes. Medical sterilizing plants in Illinois and in Michigan have shut permanently amid public outcry about the use of ethylene oxide.
A spokesman for the state Environmental Protection Division (EPD) says the agency doesn’t know how long the Covington warehouse has been operating.
Michael Geoffroy, an attorney representing area residents who have cancer, said Wednesday that BD has operated its warehouse in Covington for at least 15 years and charged that the company has been aware of the dangers there. Area residents were stunned by the news. The level of emissions from the warehouse “is very surprising,” said Cindy Jordan, a member of the local activist group Say No to EtO. “It baffles me. I wasn’t even worried about [the warehouse.]”
“They’re continuing to endanger the community,” she said. “I think they should shut down the whole sterilizing process.”
The state’s “notice of violation” Thursday seeks to prevent BD from putting any supplies sterilized with EtO into the storage facility from Dec. 23 through Jan. 6.
It also requests that the company monitor air at residential areas and schools near the distribution center. The state also asks BD to submit a permit application for the warehouse that will include installation of air pollution control equipment to destroy “no less than 99% of ethylene oxide emissions.”
In its notice of violation, the state said fines could be as high as $25,000 per day.
BD says it is monitoring employee exposure more often and is exploring different ways to sterilize equipment. It says a section of the warehouse that stored “acute urology procedural trays” had the highest readings of ethylene oxide.
The city of Covington in October said preliminary data from air pollution testing found ethylene oxide levels that were particularly high in two neighborhoods close to the BD sterilizing plant.
City officials, in a statement Thursday evening, said, “We appreciate the continued efforts of the Georgia EPD and the support they are giving our community. While we are concerned by the notice of the recently released violations against BD's warehouse in Covington, we are confident BD will follow the actions and responses as directed by the EPD and regain compliance soon.
“Citizens can rest assured city of Covington officials will continue to take an active role ensuring the air quality in Covington is satisfactory.”