Test at controversial medical sterilization site in Cobb is scrapped

A medical sterilizing facility in Cobb County, closed for months over concerns about toxic pollution, was planning to test new equipment Thursday in the company’s bid to reopen the site.

But that testing won’t take place. Cobb County and state officials said Wednesday that the company’s plan had been canceled.

A Cobb spokesman said safety concerns over the plant, run by the company Sterigenics, still must be addressed. The facility has been closed since late August.

Last fall, the county demanded additional safety controls at the Sterigenics facility, which uses ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing gas, to sterilize medical supplies.

Local residents and government officials have questioned the safety of that sterilization process since a report last summer by WebMD and Georgia Health News identified three metro Atlanta census tracts in EPA data as having an elevated cancer risk from air pollution, largely driven by ethylene oxide. Two of them are in Fulton County, just south of the Sterigenics plant in Cobb.

Cobb County spokesman Ross Cavitt told GHN that the planned Sterigenics test Thursday “did not involve the use of ethylene oxide and was not a prelude to the company resuming operations.’’

Sterigenics plant in Cobb

A Sterigenics official, in a Feb. 14 letter to the state Environmental Protection Division, said the company planned to test “negative pressure’’ changes at the Cobb plant, in the southern part of the county.

An EPD spokesman, Kevin Chambers, said Wednesday that the state is awaiting word from Cobb “that all necessary approvals have been met.  We don’t expect that today, so the testing will not occur tomorrow.’’

The county said work continues between Sterigenics and an independent third-party engineering firm to address fire code and safety issues with Cobb County.

The engineering firm, Cavitt said, has not yet produced a report and there is no timetable for its completion.  “Both parties are still trading information as part of that investigation,’’ he said. “No sterilization is occurring at the facility.”

Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott, who represents the area where the facility is located, released a statement Wednesday that said he reached out to Gov. Brian Kemp’s office after finding out about the Sterigenics test.


“I immediately reached out to the Governor’s Office to get EPD to stop this testing and force Sterigenics to comply with county rules and codes,’’ Ott said. “Although the testing involves a test of the negative pressure system of the facility and is not using any ethylene oxide, it is unacceptable for Sterigenics to proceed without approval or permits from the county and the state.’’

Sterigenics said in a statement that the installation of the emission control systems ‘’was nearly complete prior to the county’s request to halt that work in early October.’’

“The county has approved the testing and balancing of the systems that has occurred since that time,’’ Sterigenics said. “We had approval from the county for tomorrow’s testing and were actively preparing to begin that work.   We are not in a position to comment on the county’s recent decision making.”

Yet state Rep. Erick Allen, a Democrat who represents the Smyrna area of Cobb, said Wednesday that the cancellation of the test was “a very positive outcome.’’

“Until the company has a certificate from the county to conduct its stated business at the facility, there should be no operations,’’ Allen said. “This is what is expected of every other business operating in Cobb County, and no company should be able to run a circle around that process. I appreciate the prompt response by the Governor’s Office.’’

Other medical sterilization plants using ethylene oxide in metro Atlanta have also drawn increased scrutiny: One operated by the company BD in Covington, about a half-hour east of Atlanta; and Sterilization Services of Georgia, in south Fulton County.


Allen is the lead sponsor of legislation in the Georgia General Assembly that would create a state study committee on ethylene oxide; require sterilizing plants to report any leaks of the gas to the state; and tighten the regulation of “stack emissions’’ and “off-gassing’’ in warehouses and other buildings. Off-gassing refers to the release of ethylene oxide gas from equipment sterilized with the chemical.

Recently a BD warehouse in Covington was reported to have high levels of ethylene oxide.

Sterigenics decided in September to permanently shut down its plant in Willowbrook, Ill., which has also been the target of community protests and government scrutiny. The company told GHN recently that it is still paying its Cobb County workforce, apparently signaling that it plans to have its facility there reopen at some point.

Janet Rau, president of Stop Sterigenics Georgia, a local activist group, welcomed the cancellation of the facility test. “We will maintain our vigilance in this situation and alert the public whenever we find questionable activity,’’ she said.

Hundreds gathered last fall in Marietta to hear regulators talk about ethylene oxide. Photo credit: Marietta Daily Journal