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Ethylene Oxide and Sterigenics: What You Need to Know

There has been much necessary talk in the greater metro Atlanta area about the release of a carcinogenic chemical called ethylene oxide (EtO) into the air from the Sterigenics plant in Smyrna off Atlanta Road near the Chattahoochee River. Many concerned citizens have banded together to form task forces and committees to stop the release of ethylene oxide so near to our homes, schools, and places of worship.

What is Ethylene Oxide and Should We Be Concerned?

According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA): “Ethylene oxide is produced in large volumes and is primarily used as an intermediate in the production of several industrial chemicals, the most notable of which is ethylene glycol. It is also used as a fumigant in certain agricultural products and as a sterilant for medical equipment and supplies.” 

ethylene oxide, EtO

Sterigenics, the controversial company in Smyrna releasing Ethylene oxide into our air supply, sterilizes medical equipment.

Recently, WebMD published an influential article explaining the connection between Ethylene oxide and cancer. It cites an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study released in 2017. The article shocked the greater metro Atlanta community, because, as the WebMD journalist explains, most of us had no idea that this chemical was being released so close to home, or what it could do to our health. In fact, the EPA did not put out a press release about this study, nor did state regulators. In short, we are finding out about this one year after the study was released–one year in which action could have been taken. 

According to the Cobb County Communications website, the EPA does recognize Ethylene oxide as a cancer-causing chemical. The 10-year study from the EPA confirmed that Ethylene oxide was far more dangerous than we understood. WebMd notes that after this study, “the agency moved it from a list of chemicals that probably could cause cancer to a list of those that definitely caused cancer.” However, the Georgia division of the EPA maintains that Sterigenics is “in compliance with current federal requirements for control of ethylene oxide emissions.” The next step that local task forces and city governments, including the mayor of Smyrna, Max Bacon, will tackle is testing the air for levels of EtO.

Cancer in Our Community

Testing the air around Sterigenics could take a while, however. And what about the people who are already suffering from its effects? There are three affected areas in metro Atlanta: two around Smyrna and one in Covington. WebMD asserts that the EPA report “estimated that around Smyrna, ethylene oxide causes about 70 of the 114 extra cases of cancer for every million people exposed over their lifetimes. In Covington, it estimated the gas causes about 170 of the 214 cases for every million people exposed.” 

The numbers are shocking.

Consider the case of Ann Singly, who developed stage three breast cancer in 2007 in Covington, Georgia. At the time, Singley’s youngest child was three years old. The same year that Singley was diagnosed, a company now called BD Bard, which uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment, “reported releasing more than 9,000 pounds of a gas called ethylene oxide in the air” about a half-mile from Singley’s home. Singley lost her fight with breast cancer in 2012, right in the middle of the EPA’s Ethylene Oxide Study.

According to a news report by Atlanta radio station  WABE, “companies that release ethylene oxide have largely continued to conduct business as usual. Many are legally allowed to release thousands of pounds of ethylene oxide each year because they received state permits before the EPA lowered the risk threshold for the chemical.” Smyrna and Covington are implicated in this, as the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) did it’s own modeling to examine risks from ethylene oxide and found that both areas exceed the state’s “determined level of a chemical at which health risks begin to rise.” 

Clearly, ethylene oxide poses a big, cancer-causing risk for the Atlanta area. Citizens like Ann Singley, who was 33-years-old, should have been made aware of the risk of living close to a plant that released EtO, and the EPA and Georgia government should more closely regulate the amount of these toxins that are dumped into the airways that sustain our community.

Next Steps

As of August 7, 2019, Cobb County leaders have joined the effort to test air near Sterigenics (in District 2). Cobb leaders will join the mayor of Smyrna, along with concerned residents and business leaders from both the city and the county, health experts, and other local stakeholders, to lead this effort. Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott said that “this quick action shows the relationship between the city and the county.” For the history of the rise in outrage over ethylene oxide in Smyrna and Covington, we recommend the Cobb County Government’s Communications page. There you will find a detailed listing of all of the latest news on this critical issue.

If you live around the areas of Smyrna or Covington and have been diagnosed with cancer, your next steps will need to include reaching out to a lawyer who can help you make reparations for the damage that this terrible chemical has raught. 

Marks Law Group possesses the skill and experience necessary to handle complex cases like this one. As experienced Georgia litigators, we understand how closely this situation hits home. Contact us today to find out how we can help you!

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