For residents in western Buckhead and beyond, “wait and see” is the official message right now on concerns about emissions of a possibly cancer-causing gas from a Smyrna plant.
A recent report from WebMD and Georgia Health News revealed federal estimates of elevated cancer risks from emissions of the invisible, odorless substance, called ethylene oxide, at a facility run by Sterigenics. The company uses the substance in its process of sterilizing medical equipment at the 2971 Olympic Industrial Drive facility, less than a mile from the Buckhead border.
The results of actual air tests, rather than estimates and models, should be coming in about a month, according to state Sen. Jen Jordan (D-Atlanta), whose districts includes Smyrna and most of Buckhead. And she’ll seek a study to determine whether there are any “cancer clusters” in the area of the facility, which has operated for decades.
But the only thing that can be stated for now about actual health risks, Jordan says, is: “We’re not sure.”
On its website, Sterigenics says it has always operated within federal guidelines and says it already captures “99.9%” of ethylene oxide emissions. The company recently entered an agreement with the state Environment Protection Division to add further emission controls that will take three to eight months to build.
“Sterigenics is committed to the safety of the communities in which we operate, our employees and the patients we serve,” the company said in a press release. “We follow rigorous safety protocols at our Atlanta facility and at all of our facilities and are committed to continuously improving our operations in the ongoing interest of public safety.”
A company spokesperson declined to comment further on the record.
Modeling emissions risks
The local concern has come three years after the federal Environmental Protection Agency deemed ethylene oxide to be a more significant cancer risk in emissions from such facilities than previously estimated. And Sterigenics is embroiled in controversy over another facility in Illinois, which was shuttered earlier this year by the state following detection of high ethylene oxide emissions there. More than 30 Illinois residents are now suing Sterigenics, alleging cancer and cover-ups, while the company asserts it followed the rules and did not hide any information.
In metro Atlanta, the emissions concerns are rooted in a 2018 EPA report of its modeling of air pollution across the country for the year 2014. That model, which is just an estimate and is based on emissions information self-reported by companies, showed elevated ethylene oxide cancer risks in certain census tracts around two facilities: the Sterigenics site in Smyrna and another company’s facility in Covington. Among the areas showing elevated levels of the substance in the model, according to Jordan, is the Paces area and other parts of Buckhead roughly bordered by Peachtree Creek, I-75 and Northside Parkway.
The state Environmental Protection Division was aware of the modeling, but did not tell local residents or the general public, and did not conduct thorough air testing around the facilities. The public and elected officials learned about it through the WebMD/Georgia Health News report.
Jordan says the information was “kept from the public, seemingly intentionally…. EPD basically decided to keep this to themselves, for whatever reason.”
The local concern has been significant. Atlanta City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit, who represents western Buckhead, said he has heard from “lots and lots of folks” worried about the emissions. Jordan says she has heard concern farther north in Sandy Springs.
“The hope is, obviously, the further out you get, the better,” Jordan said. “I don’t think it’s going to extend up to Sandy Springs, but I’m not sure.”
InterContinental Hotel Group, a major hotel company whose North American headquarters is in Dunwoody, has a design center in the same Smyrna complex as Sterigenics and has temporarily left the site “in an abundance of caution,” according to IHG spokesperson Jacob Hawkins.
However, models and self-reported data are not hard facts about actual cancer risk. Cobb County and the cities of Smyrna and Atlanta are now collaborating on extensive air testing around the Sterigenics facility, with results expected in September. The EPD is also conducted air testing, though its results could take until November, a delay Jordan calls “ridiculous.”
“You have to have data, you have to have facts, in order to deal with this situation,” says Matzigkeit.
Sterigenics’ website downplays the dangers of ethylene oxide, noting it also occurs naturally and in such other pollutants as motor vehicle exhaust, and claiming local levels are lower than the ambient air in such cities as Chicago and Los Angeles. The company also notes its agreement to alter its facility to further contain the gas.
Jordan – who works as an attorney in liability cases — says that “the best-case scenario is, those measures are working.” But even if there is little or no immediate risk from today’s emissions, Jordan said, she is still concerned about the long history of emissions on the site under looser controls. The facility has operated on the site, originally under a different ownership, since 1972, according to the Sterigenics spokesperson.
Jordan said that the company’s self-reported information for the year 1987 was 97,000 pounds of ethylene oxide emitted from its stacks. She said that a lack of pollution today would be “very cold comfort to me” looking back on the amount already released in previous decades. She said she will call for a “deep dive with the Department of Public Health on whether we have any cancer clusters emerging. Because this would be the time.”
Changes to state law are possible, too. Jordan said that the Illinois controversy is already providing some models for reform, such as usage limits on ethylene oxide and continuous on-site monitoring of emissions. Then there’s the issue of telling the public. “Should there be a law that if EPD knows there’s a major public health risk, they should disclose it?” she said with a chuckle, suggesting that is already the agency’s job.
Asked about sites beyond Smyrna and Covington that could have similarly unknown pollution risks, Jordan said, “That’s what’s really scary.”
There’s another facility in South Fulton that uses ethylene oxide and has chosen to never self-report emissions, so there is not even a risk model available. And there are smaller facilities in the metro area that use the substance with no reporting or controls, she said.
Updated version: This story has been updated with information about the age of the facility.