Residents near the Sterigenics medical sterilization facility in unincorporated Cobb County were disturbed to learn this week that the facility was set to reopen. Citing the critical need for personal protective equipment (PPE) on the front lines of the COVID-19 fight, Cobb Commission Chairman Mike Boyce was convinced to issue an emergency authorization that would allow the facility to reopen on a “limited contingency basis.”
The move surprised many residents in the areas around the facility that are at highest risk of exposure to ethylene oxide (ETO), the carcinogen that came to the attention of Georgians this past July. It also came as a disappointment to elected officials In the area, who were not alerted to the authorization by Boyce. As one of those elected officials, I can attest that this disappointment is in part because the announcement from Boyce undermines the degree to which elected stakeholders from two counties and multiple cities and school districts, and both political parties worked together to ensure that the air our community breathed was safe. (I wrote about that cooperation and the resulting actions here.)
State Representative Erick Allen (D-Smyrna), who has lead the House effort for more stringent ETO regulations in Georgia (there are several other facilities throughout the state that use the gas, including the BD plant in Covington), learned last week that the FDA had written a letter to Governor Kemp to urge him to allow the facility to reopen. Rep. Allen then wrote a letter to the FDA (which you can read here) seeking clarification on several points.
The most notable of these points is whether ETO, which is what Sterigenics uses to sterilize certain medical devices and equipment, is even necessary to clean the PPE that is in indisputably short supply:
“Is the request for Sterigenics to use Ethylene Oxide even though it is not required for the Level 1 products that are in need?”
Cobb County Commissioner Lisa Cupid, who is running for Cobb Commission Chair, wrote on Facebook, “I have yet to see documentation or evidence providing that but for Sterigenics opening, medical facilities would be short personal protective equipment. I also have seen no evidence that other alternatives—including other sterilization businesses or methods—were explored.”
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the situation came late this week, when Sterigenics issued a statement stating that Chairman Boyce’s emergency authorization doesn’t go far enough, noting that the authorization will expire when the Declaration of Emergency Issued by the county in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is no longer in effect.