The controversy over the toxic gas ethylene oxide spilled over into the Georgia General Assembly on Monday. A House panel approved legislation to require... Debate on ethylene oxide bill adds to furor over toxic gas

The controversy over the toxic gas ethylene oxide spilled over into the Georgia General Assembly on Monday.

A House panel approved legislation to require companies to notify state regulators of any “unpermitted release” or leak of the chemical, which is used to sterilize medical equipment. Releases of ethylene oxide from sterilizing facilities have sparked community protests in two areas of metro Atlanta in recent months.

Sterigenics facility. Credit: Marietta Daily Journal

 

Democratic lawmakers and advocacy groups argued that House Bill 927’s reporting requirements for companies would not go far enough. Under the legislation, the state would gather data on all leaks of ethylene oxide, but would not have to publicly report the releases if they’re under 10 pounds a day.

Medical sterilizing plants in south Cobb County and in Newton County have had such leaks in the past year. In those cases, each was under 10 pounds a day. (Companies collect and report their own data on ethylene oxide releases.)

The two facilities, run by the companies Sterigenics and BD, respectively, have drawn more government and community attention since last July. That’s when a report 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 due to ethylene oxide.

Two of the tracts are in Fulton County, near the Sterigenics facility. The third is in Covington in Newton County, where BD operates. The EPA classified the chemical as a cancer-causing substance in 2016.

Ethylene oxide “is a known human carcinogen,’’ Janet Rau, president of Stop Sterigenics Georgia, an activist group, told the subcommittee of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee. Having to apply for an Open Records Request for data on leaks of less than 10 pounds, she said, “is a burden on the public that’s not necessary.’’

Rep. Mary Frances Williams (D-Marietta) sought to get language added to the bill for more public access to all leak information, but was not allowed to offer an amendment.

Williams

Residents in her district want complete information about ethylene oxide, she said. “This is so important to the health of my community.’’

The bill’s lead sponsor, Republican Rep. Don Parsons, also of Marietta, said that while ethylene oxide is used to make many products, its use in sterilizing medical supplies is vital — especially in times like these, with a new coronavirus active in the United States and elsewhere.

Parsons opposed any amendments, and the subcommittee chairman, Timothy Barr (R-Lawrenceville), backed that position. The bill passed the subcommittee with only Williams voting against it.

After the hearing, Rau and Rep. Erick Allen (D-Smyrna) confronted Parsons in a hallway about his opposition to amendments.

Allen, who said he lives in the district near the Sterigenics plant, called the bill’s public reporting limits “ridiculous.’’

Allen

“This is exactly what government is not supposed to be,’’ Allen told GHN. “It allows the company to hide behind their bad collection of data.’’

He said he hoped the state Senate, which is considering a similar bill, would strengthen House Bill 927’s language.

Allen also calls for requiring ambient air testing in communities around the sterilization plants. That position was supported at the hearing by April Lipscomb of the Southern Environmental Law Center,  who said she backed the bill.

Wes Robinson, representing the American Chemistry Council, an industry group, said the organization supports the legislation as currently worded. But he said the group objects to the EPA’s analysis of ethylene oxide as a threat to health.

The Sterigenics facility has been closed since late August. Cobb County has demanded additional safety controls at the sterilizing plant.

Allen has introduced proposals that would create a state study committee on ethylene oxide, and would tighten the regulation of “stack emissions’’ and “off-gassing’’ in warehouses and other buildings. Off-gassing refers to the emission 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.

BD plant in Covington

 

The Sterigenics facility, in Smyrna, just northwest of Atlanta, has had several unreported releases of the chemical in the past five years, according to the state Environmental Protection Division. Each was less than 10 pounds, Sterigenics said in an email to an EPD official.

The BD plant in Covington, east of Atlanta, had an eight-day leak in September — about 7 pounds per day, or 54 pounds in all. BD reported the leak to the state Environmental Protection Division.

The company is under a consent order with the state that requires all leaks from the Covington facility to be reported to the state.


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Andy Miller

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News

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