Brenda Goodman is a senior news writer for WebMD. Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News.
Jan. 9, 2020 -- A neighborhood west of Atlanta faces cancer risks that rise above what the government considers acceptable for airborne toxins, a study by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division shows.
The neighborhood, WestChase at Sandtown, in southern Fulton County, sits about a half-mile due southeast of Sterilization Services of Georgia, which uses ethylene oxide gas to sterilize medical products.
Based on the Environmental Protection Division’s (EPD’s) modeling of the company’s reported emissions, average concentrations of ethylene oxide in the air at WestChase are higher than any other residential area the agency has studied in the state.
“EPD believes that the lack of back vent controls at Sterilization Services of Georgia was the cause of these higher numbers,” EPD spokesperson Kevin Chambers said in an emailed statement Wednesday.
Back vents blow ethylene oxide fumes away from workers when they open the door on a sterilization chamber after a cycle.
With permission from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, many sterilization facilities disconnected their back vents from pollution controls after explosions rocked the industry in the 1990s.
Further study found that the back vents were not to blame for the explosions, but many facilities never hooked them back up to their pollution control equipment, and the law did not require to them to do so.
A lawmaker says the state’s findings should prompt more action.
"This facility in South Fulton should be forced to shut down until they can install the necessary equipment and prove that they are mitigating the risk to the community,” says state Rep. Erick Allen, a Democrat who represents Smyrna. He plans to propose legislation in the upcoming legislative session that would give the state new tools to monitor and regulate ethylene oxide.
Community protests and government scrutiny over ethylene oxide followed a report by WebMD and Georgia Health News last year that focused on the Georgia sterilizing plants using the chemical.
Much of the uproar has centered on two sterilizers in metro Atlanta: a facility run by Sterigenics, in Cobb County, northwest of Atlanta, and one run by BD in Covington, east of Atlanta.
Less has been known about the potential impact of Sterilization Services of Georgia.
The facility is in an industrial complex off Fulton Industrial Boulevard, just east of the Chattahoochee River. It sits in the shadow of Six Flags and Sweetwater Creek State Park.
Although the Environmental Protection Agency tracks toxic emissions, the company stopped reporting its emissions to the agency in 2002. Because of that, the company was not included in the EPA’s latest air toxics assessment, which was published in August of 2018.
Since that report came out, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division has been doing its own modeling to determine risks from toxic emissions in the state. It has been working with the company -- using its self-reported emissions -- to understand how much ethylene oxide Sterilization Services is releasing into the air.
The EPD has not tested the air in neighborhoods around Sterilization Services of Georgia. It has done air testing around Sterigenics in Cobb County and BD in Covington.
The EPD only recently completed its air modeling study for the facility, estimating that ethylene oxide levels exceed the state’s safe level at all three of the residential areas that are closest to it: WestChase, a subdivision called Tributary in Lithia Springs, and the Panther Riverside Parc Apartments.
Average annual levels at Tributary, which sits about a mile west of Sterilization Services, were estimated in the state’s model to be 22 times higher than the state’s acceptable air level. Levels at the Panther Riverside Parc apartments, which is about a mile due south, were about 3 times higher. The state’s acceptable air level for ethylene oxide is very low and is more protective than the federal standard.
Those levels correspond to about 22 additional cases of cancer for every million people exposed at Tributary over the course of their lifetimes, and about three extra cases of cancer at Panther Riverside for every million people exposed over the course of their lifetime. These are considered to be small enough that they wouldn’t trigger extra government study.
But the story changes for WestChase, the neighborhood closest to the facility. Based on the state’s model, average levels were estimated to be 201 times higher than the state’s acceptable levels for ethylene oxide.
The EPA considers cancer risk from air toxins to be unacceptable when they exceed 100 cases of cancer for every million people exposed over the course of their lifetimes. The air concentrations modeled at WestChase are above that level. They represent about 200 extra cancers for every million people exposed to this level of ethylene oxide over the course of their lifetime (which is assumed to be 70 years).
Additional pollution controls were supposed to reduce that risk, but Sterilization Services missed a Dec. 31 deadline to install them.
In a Jan. 7 consent order with the company, the state is levying fines of $3,000 a day through the month of January or until new pollution controls are installed, whichever comes first.
If the company misses a Feb. 28 deadline, the state will require it to stop using ethylene oxide until it installs the pollution controls.
In addition to the state’s modeling study, Fulton County tested the air around Sterilization Services at five locations near the plant and at eight nearby schools.
The air samples were collected over 10 days in early October. Test results were presented to the Fulton County Board of Commissioners in December.
Nearly all samples showed levels of ethylene oxide that were above a federal safety standard.
Sterilization Services did not respond to a call for comment by our publication deadline.
The EPD says it is planning an informational meeting for residents in the neighborhoods identified in the modeling study to discuss the recent enforcement action.