An undisclosed leak of ethylene oxide gas from the Sterigenics sterilizing facility near Smyrna, Georgia, in July has prompted an immediate investigation by state officials.
The leak occurred on July 31, the same day that the Sterigenics plant submitted an application to the state for permission to make improvements that would lower the amount of ethylene oxide gas that escapes from the facility.
Sterigenics, a company that uses ethylene oxide to sterilize pre-packaged medical devices, has become the source of public outrage and scrutiny in several Atlanta-area communities since WebMD and Georgia Health News published a report last month about the plant’s highly toxic emissions. The Sterigenics facility northwest of Atlanta and the Bard BD plant southeast of the city in Covington never informed the public about the emissions until after the press reports. Likewise, federal and state officials who knew about the problem remained mute.
The US. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) became aware that ethylene oxide is far more toxic than it previously thought in 2016 after concluding a 10-year study that showed the chemical poses a serious threat of cancer to people living near facilities that use it. The agency also identified 109 census tracts nationwide where people were most at risk. That list included parts of Smyrna and Covington and surrounding areas.
The EPA informed the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) of the ethylene oxide dangers, but the agency didn’t inform the at-risk communities. EPD officials told residents of the affected communities in a recent meeting in Marietta that the agency is still studying the EPA data and was about to notify the public.
It was the press that also exposed the undisclosed July 31 ethylene oxide leak at the Sterigenics facility. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained an internal email Sterigenics sent to its employees informing them of the leak.
“I wanted to inform each of you that we experienced an area evacuation at approximately 3:14 a.m. this morning,” the email said. “An investigation took place at this time and it was found that a drum that was recently removed … was leaking from the gas valve.”
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sterigenics said it didn’t inform EPD because the leak was less than six pounds – under the 10-pound threshold making reporting leaks a requirement.
But facing pressure from the public for more oversight, the EPD said it was sending an investigative team to the Sterigenics plant to assess its equipment and to find out how the company determined how much ethylene oxide had leaked.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also reported on other safety concerns at the Sterigenics plant near Smyrna, including an explosion on July 10, 2018, that severely injured one worker, as well as another, separate ethylene oxide leak in April 2018.
These incidents illuminate the lax regulations under which Sterigenics and similar plants operate. Even now, the state of Georgia relies on air pollution numbers self-reported by the companies to gauge air quality in the affected communities.
According to Georgia Health News, state maps offer only educated guesses about the pollution in the affected areas. “That’s because they are based on estimated emissions that are self-reported by the companies. No air testing for ethylene oxide has been done in the neighborhoods around the plants,” according to the publication.
Only last month, Georgia Health News reported that the EDP said it “currently has no plans to do air testing. It also said it has no immediate plans to require the companies to reduce their emissions.”
Thanks to the media, a lot has changed since then. Reports of the toxic emissions and lax oversight have prompted both state officials and the polluters to take action. Sterigenics says it is installing additional emissions-reducing equipment in the next 12 to 14 weeks to reduce ethylene oxide emissions. State regulators are also fast-tracking approval of those plans and city officials are meeting with company officials and legislators to push for real action in safeguarding their communities from ethylene oxide leaks and emissions.