Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News. Brenda Goodman is a senior news writer for WebMD.
Oct. 2, 2019 — A medical sterilization plant in suburban Atlanta at the center of a controversy over toxic pollution will remain closed until the company meets new safety standards, Cobb County officials say.
The Sterigenics facility, which sterilizes medical supplies with ethylene oxide, had been temporarily shut down while doing construction to reduce its emissions of the cancer-causing gas. At first, those changes were expected to take roughly about a month.
The action by Cobb County means that the plant may be shut down for much longer than the company anticipated.
On Tuesday, the county sent a letter to attorneys representing Sterigenics. It says that because the Smyrna facility is now classified as “high hazard,” more safety controls are required. It also says Sterigenics must stop its current construction work.
Sterigenics had recently worked on upgrades to the sterilization plant, as outlined under a consent order with the state of Georgia.
Local residents and government officials have been questioning the safety of the sterilization process since a July report from WebMD and Georgia Health News identified three metro Atlanta census tracts in Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data as having a higher cancer risk from air pollution, largely driven by ethylene oxide.
Two of the tracts are in the Smyrna area, just northwest of Atlanta. The third is in Covington, about a half-hour east of Atlanta, where another medical sterilization facility, run by BD, uses ethylene oxide. The EPA classified the chemical as a cancer-causing substance in 2016.
Because of the recent “high hazard” classification, the Sterigenics construction permit now “remains on hold,” says the letter from Brian Johnson, a senior associate Cobb County attorney. The Smyrna plant had been classified as “storage” before Cobb County officials said its status should change.
Until review by a technical expert and county officials is done, “Sterigenics is not permitted to engage in construction or sterilization operations at its Cobb County facility,” the letter says.
The letter comes a day after the company announced that it was permanently shutting down its operations in Willowbrook, IL, amid a groundswell of political and community opposition. That facility also used ethylene oxide gas for sterilization.
Sterigenics said Monday that it is shifting its Chicago-area business to other facilities, adding that “unfortunately, inaccurate and unfounded claims regarding Sterigenics and the unstable legislative and regulatory landscape in Illinois have created an environment in which it is not prudent to maintain these critical sterilization operations in Willowbrook.”
Responding to the Cobb County letter, Sterigenics issued a statement that says the company “has always operated with a focus on safety and is committed to completing the voluntary enhancements at our Atlanta facility to further reduce ethylene oxide emissions below already safe levels.”
“We continue to engage with officials regarding the process to resume operations,” the statement says. “We have made significant progress in completing the necessary construction to implement the enhancements approved by the Georgia EPD [Environmental Protection Division]. The sterilization of vital medical products and devices at our Atlanta facility is critical to keeping patients safe, and extended delay in resuming those operations places patient safety at risk.”
Tony Adams, a member of the activist group Stop Sterigenics — Georgia, said Wednesday that the tougher Cobb County restrictions are “good news.”
A Smyrna shutdown similar to Willowbrook “is the outcome we want,” Adams said.
The sterilizing industry, he said, should move plants using ethylene oxide to unpopulated areas, and also push to use alternatives to the toxic gas.
A spokesman for the state Environmental Protection Division said Wednesday that the safety review “is a Cobb County matter.”
The attorney letter says Cobb County will give Sterigenics a list of qualified technical experts who would review the company’s facility renovations and plans. The company will then be able to select one expert from that list to analyze the Smyrna facility situation.
“This critical regulatory review cannot be rushed or haphazardly conducted,” the letter says. “In deference to public safety and the best interests of Cobb County residents, we will take the necessary steps to ensure compliance with various, highly technical building and fire codes.”