State, federal regulators hear questions, concerns on ethylene oxide

Brenda Goodman is a senior news writer for WebMD. Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News.

Why didn’t you tell us?

It was the first question from the public to state and federal environmental regulators addressing hundreds of Cobb and Fulton County residents Monday night about the dangers of ethylene oxide. It’s a cancer-causing gas that has leaked into the air over the years from a Smyrna-area facility run by Sterigenics that sterilizes medical supplies.

An EPA official explains a cancer risk map to residents.

Many in the crowd, whose members had been admonished not to yell, silently held up bright orange signs that said, “Say No to ETO.” EtO is chemical shorthand for ethylene oxide.

“Why wasn’t our area informed of this increased risk?’’ regulators were asked.

A 2018 EPA report found elevated cancer risks in three census tracts in metro Atlanta — two in the Smyrna area and one in Covington, where another medical sterilizing plant operates.

Ken Mitchell, chief of air toxics for Region 4 of the EPA, expressed second thoughts about how his agency handled the data on the elevated cancer risk last year. The agency decided not to issue a press release last August when the results of the National Air Toxics Assessment were posted.

He conceded that this experience has made him think long and hard about “what’s the best way to tell folks about information and when.”

A chorus of “boos” rose from the audience at the Cobb County Civic Center. “Go home!” someone shouted.

Karen Hays, chief of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s Air Branch, spoke more directly.

“I hear you. I hear you.  You feel like we should have communicated with you long before this. I hear you,” she said.

In her presentation, Hays said the state is preparing a long-term study of ethylene oxide levels around all the facilities in Georgia where the chemical has been released into the air. She also said the state had already taken three additional air samples at its monitoring station in south DeKalb County, more than a dozen miles from the Sterigenics medical sterilizing facility in Smyrna. Those samples are currently being analyzed.

The prevailing theme among the regulators was that there is a need for more data and more science on ethylene oxide.

The Georgia Department of Public Health said it is working with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry on studying cancer risks within 1 mile of the Sterigenics facility.


Barry Goppman, who lives about 3 miles from Sterigenics, said he was disappointed with the evening’s presentations.

Goppman, 72, has been a marathon runner and cyclist. He now has chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He wonders if all the time he spent outdoors in that area while exercising led to his cancer. Goppman has lived in the Smyrna area for 20 years.

He said the presenters “were hiding behind scientific terms and government studies. We’re getting lip service.”