Federal and state regulators held a public meeting in Marietta, Georgia, recently to address the fear, anger and mistrust many city residents expressed after learning about dangerous ethylene oxide emissions from medical device sterilizing facilities in their communities.

About a thousand people gathered at the Cobb County Civic Center in Marietta, Georgia, to learn what is being done about the ethylene oxide emissions and also demand answers about why it has taken so long to learn about them, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Ethylene oxide: a serious cancer threat

In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded a 10-year study of ethylene oxide, a chemical gas commonly used in the sterilization of pre-packaged medical devices. The exhaustive study found the gas to be 30 times more toxic to human health than previously thought. Acute exposures can trigger a variety of symptoms, such as respiratory irritation and lung injury, headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, shortness of breath, and cyanosis.

But chronic exposures to ethylene oxide promote cancer, reproductive problems, mutagenic changes, and neurotoxicity, to name a few of the adverse effects.

Two years later, the EPA issued a report flagging 109 census areas where people are living under an elevated threat of cancer and other health problems posed by airborne toxins, most of which are driven by the release of ethylene oxide.

Georgia communities exposed

On that list were several communities along the Cobb-Fulton county border, close to a Sterigenics plant where employees use ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment. Another census tract on the list was Covington, southeast of Atlanta, where another sterilization facility called Bard BD is located.

According to Georgia Health News, Georgia regulators estimate that ethylene oxide emissions in Smyrna are up to 61 times higher than the Acceptable Area Concentration (AAC), the maximum level of air pollution considered reasonably safe. In Covington, Georgia, ethylene oxide concentrations around the Bard BD plant measure up to 97 times the AAC. Now we know that even the maximum allowable limits aren’t safe; not by a long shot. To put it bluntly, the air around Georgia’s sterilization plants is too dangerous to breathe. The risks posed by ethylene oxide emissions in these communities correlate to abnormally high rates of cancer and cancer deaths many times higher than the national average.

While the EPA and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) knew about the ethylene oxide risks, they never informed the public or the communities directly impacted by them. Most people in the affected communities learned about the hazards only after WebMD and other news media reported on the problem.

Regulators failed to see the urgency

An hour into the meeting, Karen Hays, chief of the air protection branch of the Georgia EPD, told attendees that the agency was getting around to informing the public.

“I hear you. I hear that you feel like we should have talked to you long before that. I hear,” she said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“So our focus, right or wrong,” she added, was to take the EPA’s data and “find out what was going on, on the ground. We were completing that project when the WebMD article was released.”

Ken Mitchell, the deputy director of the air and radiation division for the EPA’s southeast office, similarly told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the EPA and Georgia EDP were in the process of understanding what the data meant to real people when the news broke.

“I don’t know that there’s a right answer,” Mr. Mitchell said. “But I will say that having gone through this experience with ethylene oxide and people’s feelings about it — which are absolutely legitimate – I think the next time…we’ll be a lot more thoughtful about how we communicate early and often,” he said.

“This situation is simply unacceptable”

State regulators say they are fast-tracking approval for plans to cut ethylene oxide emissions at the Sterigenics plant near Smyrna, Georgia, but how much those plant modifications will slash emissions remains unclear. According to the company the modifications will bring ethylene oxide emissions down to “negligible levels.”  The improvements will take 12 to 24 weeks to complete.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp said the state is working with BD Bard to take similar measures.

“At the end of July, my administration was made aware of elevated levels of ethylene oxide in Covington and Smyrna,” Gov. Kemp said in an Aug. 16 video statement. “As a parent I understand why local families are worried. The results are confusing, the news coverage is frightening, and the public has been left in the dark. This situation is simply unacceptable.”

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