In July, communities in Smyrna and Covington learned that toxic emissions of ethylene oxide from nearby chemical plants could put them at a heightened risk of developing cancer. Despite numerous warning signs and public outcry for weeks following the revelation, the state only last week announced specific plans for large-scale testing of the air near the industrial sites after a preliminary report showed high levels of ethylene oxide.
The state’s slow response and lack of transparency highlight issues with how it deals with environmental health concerns.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, ethylene oxide is a chemical frequently used to sterilize equipment and to make products such as antifreeze, textiles, plastics, and adhesives. Long term exposure to ethylene oxide can cause some types of cancer, including cancers of the white blood cells and breast cancer.
Several warning signs that should have motivated the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to act sooner. Sterigenics, the company operating the plant near Smyrna, first came under scrutiny for its ethylene oxide emissions in Willowbrook, Illinois in August of last year. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concluded in a report that Sterigenics’ ethylene oxide emissions posed an additional risk of 6.4 cases of cancer per 1,000 people, far above the U.S. EPA’s acceptable cancer risk threshold of 100 cases per 1 million.
After the Illinois government banned the Willowbrook facility from using ethylene oxide in mid-February, U.S. EPA conducted tests to monitor ethylene oxide concentrations in the surrounding atmosphere. The agency found much lower levels of the toxin, providing strong evidence that Sterigenics had played a major role in elevated concentrations.
Then, on July 19, WebMD and Georgia Health News released a report on the dangers facing Georgia communities. There are three census tracts in Georgia at risk: two near Smyrna and one in Covington. Though the U.S. EPA had learned these communities were at risk in 2018, many residents did not know that they were living in affected areas until much later, perhaps in large part because the U.S. EPA decided not to hold a press release on their findings.
The news shocked the communities, leading to frightened posts from residents on their Facebook groups. Facing public backlash, on August 16, EPD finally agreed publicly to begin testing the air and expects to have results in November.
The result is a victory for the media’s role in informing the public and the effects of grassroots energy, but the incident highlights problems with our government. Governor Brian Kemp released a video on Twitter expressing his concern over the dangerous chemicals and sympathy with families enraged by the lack of transparency but praising Sterigenics for agreeing to reduce emissions voluntarily. I share those sentiments, but I also would have preferred for Georgia’s government to have been more forthcoming with news and to have acted more quickly when it knew that Georgians’ lives were at risk.
It is possible that the EPD will conclude after finishing its tests that the chemical companies followed the law. If that is the case, then those companies were acting within their rights. But to close the case there would be missing the point. Through its sluggish response to a serious possible health concern, EPD has exposed glaring inadequacies in itself. When peoples’ lives are at stake, EPD cannot afford to drag its feet. The agency must become more efficient so that it can combat future problems swiftly and effectively. In our goal to be the #1 state for business, we cannot keep putting Georgians at risk.