This story is jointly reported by Brenda Goodman of WebMD and Andy Miller of Georgia Health News.
Aug. 1, 2019 -- Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s office said Thursday that it’s investigating toxic pollution involving two medical device sterilization plants in metro Atlanta.
An EPA report last year flagged two census tracts in the Smyrna area and one in Covington -- along with dozens of other areas in the U.S. -- for higher risks of cancer, driven largely by airborne releases of ethylene oxide, a gas used by sterilization plants.
Smyrna and Covington have sterilization facilities that use ethylene oxide. The cancer-causing chemical, the cancer risks associated with it, and the Georgia facilities using the gas were detailed in a report last month by WebMD and Georgia Health News.
“From the beginning, the administration has worked closely with local, state, and federal partners to investigate these findings, identify solutions, and keep residents updated throughout the process,” said Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for Kemp. “We will work around the clock to address this situation and keep Georgia families safe.”
Broce said the administration first heard about the ethylene oxide emissions from the WebMD/Georgia Health News article. She said that after that news report, Kemp staff members reached out to the state Environmental Protection Division (EPD) to get information about the sterilization plants and the processes they use.
The two companies involved in Georgia -- Sterigenics in Smyrna and BD in Covington -- have volunteered to cut emissions of ethylene oxide, Broce said.
This week, the Smyrna City Council said it has committed to independent testing of the air surrounding the Sterigenics plant there to determine accurate levels of ethylene oxide in that community. Broce said the administration supports that testing.
Kemp’s staff has heard from several lawmakers, local officials, and constituents expressing concern about the airborne pollution, Broce said.
The Kemp administration plans to hold public meetings this month to answer questions about the topic, together with federal Environmental Protection Agency and CDC officials, as well as staff from the state EPD and Department of Public Health.
The communities in the Smyrna area and Covington did not know about the cancer risks until news reports surfaced recently, even though state EPD officials have known about the EPA data since last year. Kemp took office in January.
When asked about the lack of state public disclosure on ethylene oxide, Broce said that “we try to operate every day with transparency. That’s what we expect from our administration. We will make sure that remains a priority.”
State Sen. Jen Jordan, a Democrat who represents part of the Smyrna area, said Thursday that she is “happy to hear that the Governor's Office is finally engaged. This is a public health crisis. We need all hands on deck.”
Jordan has been outspoken in a call for independent testing of the air around the Sterigenics plant.
"I'm glad he's getting involved," said state representative Erick Allen, a Democrat who represents Georgia's 40th district in Smyrna.
The administration said it has been having daily meetings and getting updates from state officials, and has been communicating with local and state lawmakers, including Jordan, Cobb County Commissioner Bob Ott, State Rep. Erick Allen, who represents the Smyrna area, and state Sen. Brian Strickland, who represents Covington.