Brenda Goodman is a senior news writer for WebMD. Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News.
The city of Smyrna has pledged to do independent air testing for a cancer-causing chemical released by a medical sterilizing plant.
“We want to be as proactive as we can,” said Tim Gould of the Smyrna City Council to hundreds of residents who filled the auditorium at a local middle school on Tuesday night to voice concerns about a Sterigenics plant’s longtime releases of the toxic gas ethylene oxide in the area. .
Just five minutes after the meeting started, police officers were turning people away who wanted to get in, citing fire codes. Many remained outside, watching the meeting through live video streamed to social media sites.
If Smyrna carries through on its plans, it will become one of just five communities — out of 109 flagged by the EPA nationally as having higher cancer risks — to get its air tested for ethylene oxide, a toxic gas that is used to sterilize medical equipment as well as make other products such as antifreeze.
In other areas that have had their air tested, the estimated cancer risks turned out to be higher than those predicted by the EPA’s modeling, which was released in 2018.
In six census tracts around Willowbrook, IL, which also has a Sterigenics facility, EPA modeling predicted that a lifetime of exposure to ethylene oxide there would cause between 73 and 250 extra cases of cancer for every million people exposed. But after air testing, the estimated cancer risk rose to 6,400 cases of cancer for every million people, according to a health study done by a division of the CDC.
In Lakewood, CO, which is near the Terumo BCT medical sterilizing plant, EPA modeling predicted exposure to ethylene oxide over a lifetime would cause between 89 and 498 extra cases of cancer for every 1 million people who were exposed. After air testing last fall by the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, those risks rose to between 905 and 5,652 extra cases of cancer for every million people exposed in residential areas around the plant.
The air testing in Colorado, which continued after the company installed new pollution controls, showed that the new precautions did lower risk somewhat, but even with new controls in place, people in neighborhoods very close to the plant had average extra cancer cases from ethylene oxide ranging from 743 to 1,500 cases for every million people exposed.
In Grand Rapids, MI, EPA modeling predicted that exposure to ethylene oxide around the Viant Medical facility there corresponded to 91 cases of cancer for every 1 million people exposed over a lifetime. Air testing in January by the Michigan Department of the Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy found ethylene oxide levels in neighborhoods around the plant that corresponded to cancer rates between 800 and 1,700 cases for every 1 million people exposed 24 hours a day for a lifetime. A cancer review of the affected census tract found elevated rates of only one cancer around the plant — multiple myeloma. The study was just a count of cancer cases. State officials said their results “cannot indicate” what may have caused the cancer increase. Viant says they will stop using ethylene oxide by the end of the year.
In the towns of Waukegan and Gurnee, IL, which have four census tracts impacted by two sterilization facilities, the EPA predicted exposure to ethylene oxide would cause between 100 and 157 extra cases of cancer for every million people exposed. The Lake County Department of Health began air testing in early June. A health study on the results has not yet been completed for residents there.
Dozens wore orange to the town hall meeting to show solidarity with a newly formed activist group, Stop Sterigenics – Georgia, which has organized to fight the plant.
The Georgia group is working in concert with activists in Willowbrook, who successfully shut down a Sterigenics plant in their neighborhood after air testing showed they were being exposed to high levels of ethylene oxide. The company is trying to reopen its Willowbrook plant after installing new pollution controls.
The Smyrna community meeting was the first time company officials had appeared at a public forum since the closure of the Willowbrook plant.
Sterigenics President Phil Macnabb told the town hall audience that his company has applied for a state permit to do a plant refitting, which he said would greatly reduce the amount of ethylene oxide released.
But when pressed by a local resident about whether the company would close the plant until those changes occurred, Macnabb said a closure would reduce deliveries of sterilized medical devices to the health care system.
Macnabb said the Georgia Sterigenics facility sterilizes more than a million medical products every day.
Those include products such as syringes that have many intricate parts that would be hard to disinfect without ethylene oxide, a chemical used by medical device manufacturers because it kills germs without the use of heat. The gas also penetrates through paper and plastic, allowing facilities that use it to render devices and products germ-free without removing those items from their packaging.
Nationally, ethylene oxide is used on about half of the medical devices in the U.S. that require sterilization, according to an industry trade group, and it has been for decades.
It wasn’t considered to be a serious environmental threat until 2016, when the EPA completed a 10-year review of the chemical’s safety and declared the gas a human carcinogen.
In 2018, when the EPA ran a regular report on health threats from toxic air pollution in the U.S., dozens of census tracts around the nation stood out as having elevated cancer risks because of ethylene oxide pollution.
Three of those tracts are in metro Atlanta: Two in the Smyrna area, northwest of Atlanta, and one in Covington, east of the city.
State Sen. Jen Jordan told the crowd that she will request the CDC to study the emissions at Sterigenics.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions that I have,’’ she said.
Jordan, a Democrat who represents parts of the Smyrna area, said she does not trust state regulators to address the situation properly. The state Environmental Protection Division “is not going to come in here and say anything or make this company do anything,’’ she said.
Georgia EPD and federal EPA officials did not attend the town hall event, though they were invited. They are expected to be present at an August meeting.
Elected officials from the Smyrna area toured the Sterigenics plant earlier Tuesday.
The city’s community relations director, Jennifer Bennett, told a reporter Wednesday morning that “Smyrna is committed to testing and finding out what the levels are.” She said details about finding a testing company and setting a timeline for testing have yet to be explored.
State Rep. Erick Allen, a Democrat who represents the district, said Tuesday that he faults state regulators for not informing citizens about the ethylene oxide releases.
The communities learned about the cancer-causing pollution from a report by WebMD and Georgia Health News.
The sterilization plant has been operating in the industrial area of Smyrna since 1972, said Cobb County Commissioner Bob Ott.
Defending his company, Macnabb said Sterigenics controls 99.9 percent of ethylene oxide emissions at the Smyrna location, and has always operated within the bounds of federal and state laws.
“Our mission is to protect people,’’ he said, not just patients who need sterile medical devices, but also the workers at the company’s plants, and the communities around the plants, he said.
“I’m not pretending it’s not a dangerous material,’’ he said, but added that the company is “not doing harm’’ in the area community.
But he clearly didn’t convince many members of the audience, who shouted, “Shut it down!’’ after a Willowbrook-area resident addressed him during a question-and-answer period.
Lauren Kaeseberg, who lives in Darien, IL, said to the crowd, “I live a mile from the plant in Willowbrook. You cannot believe what they [Sterigenics] are telling you.’’
Kaeseberg flew in from Chicago just to have the chance to address MacNabb.
“This industry has had a 40-year head start on us,’’ said Kaeseberg, who told Sterigenics officials: “You should be ashamed of yourselves.’’
Many members of the crowd stood to applaud her, shouting, “Shut it down!”
After the town hall, Kaeseberg said, “I have young kids. We are literally fighting for our lives.’’
Clarification: An earlier version of this story did not include other factors besides ethylene oxide that contributed to increased risk of cancer in affected census tracts. The cancer risk numbers in those census tracts have been adjusted to reflect only the contribution of ethylene oxide to cancer risk.