This story is jointly reported by Brenda Goodman of WebMD and Andy Miller of Georgia Health News.
July 23, 2019 -- Local residents and their elected officials in metro Atlanta are responding with concern after learning that a cancer-causing gas could be drifting through the air near their homes, schools, and workplaces.
On Friday, WebMD and Georgia Health News revealed that Georgia had three census tracts the EPA identified as having higher cancer risks because of a toxic gas called ethylene oxide. All of the census tracts are in metro Atlanta: Two are in the Smyrna area west of the city, and one in Covington, east of Atlanta.
In Smyrna, the plant that releases ethylene oxide is called Sterigenics. In Covington, the plant is known as BD, formerly Bard. Nationally, 109 census tracts are at risk for greater cases of cancer largely due to exposure to ethylene oxide, a chemical used to sterilize medical equipment and make other kinds of products like antifreeze.
On various social media platforms, residents and public officials shared their concerns and questions. Many of their comments centered on the fact that the EPA did little to publicize what it found out about the cancer dangers.
Local governments in Smyrna and Covington posted statements to their websites to reassure residents that although they were also learning about the problem for the first time, they were starting to work on it.
“I am incredibly shocked, terrified, and enraged to learn about this plant,” said one woman who posted to the public Stop Sterigenics Facebook page. Stop Sterigenics is a group of citizens from Willowbrook, IL, which is home to a separate Sterigenics location. They organized last August after learning of the ethylene oxide pollution and higher cancer risk in their own community.
Stop Sterigenics posted a new welcome message Monday for Atlanta-area members who were just joining.
“So many questions,” said one man who posted on the Facebook page for the Newton Citizen, the local newspaper in Covington, which posted the story as a media partner of Georgia Health News. “So the EPA produces a list of 109 census tracts where airborne toxins have elevated the cancer risk (useful!) but then does … nothing with it?” Not useful!” he wrote, “What else don’t we know?”
In the Smyrna area, citizens were preparing a public meeting for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Atlanta Freethought Society on North Church Lane.
Tony Adams, a Smyrna area resident who is helping to organize the meeting, called the response from the community “overwhelming” on the neighborhood’s Nextdoor online group.
“We want to know that if there’s a human carcinogen being emitted, how much of it is being emitted? And what are the long-term effects?” Adams said.
“We want to be involved, and we want to know the next step. We need to be organized,” he said.
Karen Hays, Air Protection Branch chief for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD), responded to the article in the Marietta Daily Journal, which posted the story as a media partner of Georgia Health News.
“I think the story was trying to make people concerned, not trying to give the whole picture,” she said.
In Covington, City Council members discussed the revelations about the ethylene oxide pollution Monday night in a regularly scheduled meeting.
Council Member Anthony Henderson took issue with the EPD’s position. “I just think that unfortunately, the EPD thinks that the numbers are not really resulting in affecting people or really trying to get the people’s side of the view of it,” he said. “One life is too many or too much to sacrifice in a situation like that. Myself, the City Council, and the city will do everything that we can do to see that the situation is resolved,” he said, according to the Newton Citizen.
Georgia state Sen. Jen Jordan, a Democrat who represents the Smyrna area, said she had spoken to Philip MacNabb, the president of Sterigenics, on Tuesday. He said the company would be submitting an application to the EPD within 2 weeks to install new pollution control technology at its Cobb County plant. The EPD would have to approve the application.
Georgia state Rep. Erick Allen, a Democrat who represents District 40 in Smyrna, wrote on Facebook that he hoped Sterigenics would work to make its operations safer without waiting to be sued, as it was in Illinois.
“We deserve better, and I will demand better,” he wrote. “I have been in touch with other local, state, and federal elected officials and their offices, and we are committed to seeing this through to resolution. Please continue to post, email, and call as we work through this together as a community.”
The city of Smyrna posted a brief statement on its website Monday to let local residents know that although the Sterigenics plant sits outside of its official jurisdiction, “We are now aware and part of a larger set of local and state voices working to address this alarming news and circumstance.”
The City of Covington also issued a brief statement.
"Know that the safety of our citizens is our highest priority. We have briefly spoken with our state representatives, officials from the EPA and BD, and are awaiting further detail from them. As more information is gathered, the city will take appropriate action as necessary to protect our citizens."