A partially opened valve at the Becton Dickson (BD) medical sterilization facility in Covington, Georgia, allowed toxic ethylene oxide gas to escape over an eight-day period, according to an incident report by the city.
In its report released Oct. 2, the City of Covington says that BD’s indoor air monitoring system started recording elevated levels of ethylene oxide on Sept. 15. The company initially failed to identify the root cause of the leaks. Then, on Sept. 23, it discovered that a vacuum exhaust valve in one of the sterilization units was not closed all the way, according to WebMD and Georgia Health News.
BD reported that the open valve resulted in the release of 54 pounds of ethylene oxide, about seven pounds per day.
BD and another medical sterilization plant in Fulton County, Sterigenics, have been under close regulatory scrutiny after WebMD and Georgia Health News co-published a report over the summer about ethylene oxide releases from the two plants.
The news hit hard on the communities in proximity to the plants. Residents of the affected areas discovered that they had been living with a cancer risk several times higher than the levels considered safe by federal and state regulators.
Concern over ethylene oxide releases soared in 2016 after the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that ethylene oxide is far more toxic that it previously believed. The agency also identified 109 census tracts nationwide where people are at the greatest risk of injury or illness from air pollution. Nearly all the census tracts were on the list because of elevated ethylene oxide levels.
Two of those census tracts are near the Sterigenics plant near Smyrna, Georgia, and the third is in Covington near BD’s operations.
Making matters worse, both BD and Sterigenics have a history of ethylene oxide releases. According to WebMD, the Sterignenics plant has had several unreported releases of the chemical in the last five years. The latest leak occurred on July 31, 2019. The company didn’t report the release to state regulators. But after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained an internal email Sterigenics sent to its employees informing them of the leak, Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EDP) started an immediate investigation.
Some accidental releases have been relatively small. Sterigenics reported that the leak in July was less than 10 pounds. But other leaks have been much larger. In 2007, for instance, the BD plant in Covington released more than 9,000 pounds of ethylene oxide into the air.
All the media reports about the ethylene oxide exposures have stoked an outcry from residents of the affected Georgia communities. Although the EPA informed Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EDP) about the hazard in 2016, state regulators never informed the public.
The outcry put enough pressure on regulators and the sterilization companies to curb ethylene oxide emissions, and both BD and Sterigenics say they are upgrading their facilities to slash ethylene oxide emissions. BD said last week that a testing firm determined that the emissions technology it now uses at its Covington facility destroys 99.999% of ethylene oxide used during the sterilization process.
While Georgia’s EDP is conducting some air tests around the BD and Sterigenics plants, it still relies on the companies to self-report ethylene oxide releases and the quantity of the chemical leaked.
“Going forward, EPD has requested that the [Sterigenics] facility send us monthly reports of all known releases, including those below the reportable quantity threshold,” the agency says in its report. “The facility has agreed to do so.”
But will that be enough? Public health officials warn that no quantity of ethylene oxide released into the air is safe, and some find little reason to trust the companies.
Tony Adams of Stop Sterigenics – Georgia group told WebMD that says his group is suspicious of the emission figures provided by the company. “We don’t trust self-reported numbers,” he said. “We’re going to push for more oversight.”