In late July, tens of thousands of Georgians in Cobb, Fulton, and Newton Counties were suddenly made aware that they’d been exposed a toxic air-born chemical when a story that was jointly reported by Andy Miller at Georgia Health News and Brenda Goodman of WebMD was published.
Ethylene oxide (EO) is a potent chemical that is a highly effective way to sterilize medical equipment. Bacteria and fungi are no match for this invisible gas that can penetrate cardboard, paper, and plastic, and medical equipment that ranges from IV tubing to catheters to just about anything else used in a hospital setting, and that is typically sterilized after it’s been manufactured, individually packaged, and packed in cardboard cartons, and before it reaches its final destination at a hospital or healthcare provider.
Unfortunately, as Miller and Goodman reported, EO can also “snip and scramble DNA, the instructions for how living cells work. These errors in DNA can cause cells to grow uncontrollably, leading to cancer, particularly breast cancer, stomach cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma.
Two medical sterilization facilities that use EO, Sterigenics in unincorporated Cobb County and BD Bard in Newton County, were identified in June by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) as having EO levels that “exceed the state’s determined level of a chemical at which health risks begin to rise.” That “determined level” is known as the Acceptable Area Concentration, or AAC, and according to the reporting done by GHN and WebMD, “The AAC for ethylene oxide represents one additional case of cancer for every 1 million people exposed.”
In what may be one of this story’s most troubling details, it was revealed that the Georgia EPD was aware of these EO hotspots for nearly a year, starting in August 2018, but declined to issue any kind of public notice, nor did the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In the two weeks since this news broke, it has been an absolute whirlwind of both grassroots mobilization and political response, particularly in Cobb County. Notably:
- Led by State Representative Erick Allen and State Senator Jen Jordan, Cobb leaders hosted a community meeting that included representation from Sterigenics in Smyrna that drew attendees that far exceeded a middle school auditorium.
- Smyrna Mayor Max Bacon announced that the city would pursue independent air quality testing, and Cobb Commission Chair Mike Boyce quickly followed suit.
- An online and on-the-ground grassroots movement inspired by a similar organization in Willowbrook, Illinois, a city that is also home to a currently-shuttered Sterigenics facility, gained several thousand followers.
- Governor Kemp’s office responded to the news and joined the coordinated effort that began with state, county, and municipal lawmakers in Cobb County.
- The EPD expedited the process to approve Sterigenics’ application, submitted last week, to reduce EO emissions at their Cobb facility.
- The Georgia EPD launched an information portal to share their latest EO updates.
- Because of the overwhelming community interest in this issue, Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott rescheduled a town hall meeting that had been originally scheduled for this week at a much smaller venue for Monday, August 19, at 7 PM at the Cobb Civic Center. In addition to state, county, and local elected leaders, the meeting’s lineup will include representatives from the EPA, the Georgia EPD, and the CDC. Congressman David Scott also plans to attend.
An additional public meeting featuring the same alphabet soup of agencies will take place at 5:30 PM on August 20 at the Historic Newton County Courthouse. In Covington, the area around the BD Bard plant has a rate of cancer that is higher than the Georgia average. Residents in Newton County are easily as outraged as their counterparts in Cobb and Fulton, and they packed a community meeting on Monday night.
While most news reports describe this as a Smyrna issue, that’s not entirely accurate, nor does it reflect the actual impact of EO emissions from the Sterigenics facility. Vinings, which can fairly be described as a tony, lush suburb just across the river from Atlanta, is home to the census tracts that have the highest concentrations of EO. These concentrations are self-identified by Sterigenics, which underscores the need for independent air quality testing. In fact, when Senator Jordan posted the census tracts near the Sterigenics facility in Cobb that have the highest concentrations of EO, all but two tracts (the one where Sterigenics is located, and Vinings) are in Fulton, and include sizable swaths of Buckhead (which can definitely be described as lush and tony).
One last point, and a small moment of personal privilege:
I believe that most people – most normal people; that is, people for whom “#gapol” has no meaning – truly want to see their elected officials working together to improve their communities. The AJC’s Jim Galloway made note of this reality in his recent column on the political response to the Sterigenics issue in Cobb County:
If you’re tired of all the showboating and the dearth of results, if you’ve become too jaded to believe that divided government can be effective government, here’s a little advice.
Stop looking at Washington D.C.
Shift your gaze a little closer to home, toward south Cobb County, where a handful of state and local officials are writing a textbook on bipartisan crisis management.
It is clear that ethylene oxide is not by any stretch an issue that is limited to Cobb County, but the level of communication and coordination I have seen and been part of in response to this crisis is without a doubt the most effective example of multi-jurisdictional and bipartisan collaboration I have witnessed during my years of being active in Cobb politics. It is inspiring, it is reassuring, and I am confident it will result in ensuring the safety of the air we breath in Georgia.