Report links factory to cancer risks

Staff Written News

By Tia Lynn Ivey

managing editor

A new health report this week claims an “airborne menace” with cancer-causing toxins are polluting three communities in Georgia, including Covington, which is just 30 miles west of Madison. The same company under scrutiny in Covington also runs a plant in Madison, BD Bard. 

According to Georgia Health News, in 2007 BD Bard in Covington, which sterilizes medical devices, reported releasing into the air more than 9,000 pounds of a gas called ethylene oxide, which has now been deemed dangerous to human health and placed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) list of gases that “definitely” cause cancer.  BD Bard continues to use ethylene oxide for sterilization. 

“In Covington, it estimated the gas causes 214 cases for every million people exposed,” reported by Brenda Goodman of WebMD and Andy Miller of Georgia Health News. “The EPA considers the cancer risk from pollution to be unacceptable when it tops 100 cases for every million people who are exposed to a chemical over the course of their lifetime.”

According to Troy Kirkpartrick, a BD Bard spokesperson, confirmed that the Madison plant uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical products in the same fashion as the Covington plant. 

“BD cares deeply for our employees and the communities in which we operate. We are an important part of the Covington and Madison communities and take our responsibility to be a good corporate citizen very seriously,” said Kirkpatrick. “We simply would not operate a facility that we do not feel is safe for employees and neighboring residential areas. We continue to take all steps necessary to ensure the safe operation of our facilities in Covington and Madison, and we are confident our emissions at our facilities are well below all government requirements.”“As part of our commitment to the well-being of our communities, BD’s Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) standards ensure that all BD facilities are designed and operate with a high level of process safety and environmental controls. We invest in and deploy best available emission control technology at our facilities in Covington and Madison and achieve greater than 99.95 percent destruction of ethylene oxide in our plant emissions,” explained Kirkpatrick. “We verify the effectiveness of emission destruction through stack testing (conducted by an independent third-party), in accordance with permit requirements. BD meets or exceeds all local, state and federal ethylene oxide emission standards in Covington, including the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP), and our ethylene oxide levels are well below all requirements under the Clean Air Act.”BD Bard issued a statement pledging to work with state and federal environmental agencies to determine new risks and safety measures. According to the joint report from WebMD and Georgia Health News, Ethylene oxide is used on about half the medical products in the U.S. that need sterilizing, according to industry estimates. It’s also used to make other chemicals, like antifreeze.

“In the neighborhoods that have been impacted in Georgia, people are just hearing about the hazard –from Georgia Health News and WebMD nearly a year after the federal government released its official list of the hot spots. The EPA decided not to put out a news release, and state regulators did not issue one either,” wrote Goodman and Miller. 

According to Goodman and Miller, the EPA has not issued any press releases to warn nearby residents of the risks. 

“As a result, few people who live in the impacted census tracts in Georgia and elsewhere are aware of the threat, which goes back decades,” wrote Goodman and Miller. “Companies that release ethylene oxide have largely continued to do 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.”

The report indicates troubling statistics. 

“Maps made in June by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) — which did its own modeling to examine risks from the toxin — show that releases in both the Covington and Smyrna areas exceed the state’s level of a chemical where health risks begin to rise. That level is known as the acceptable area concentration, or AAC.

The AAC for ethylene oxide represents one additional case of cancer for every 1 million people exposed…In Covington, concentrations of ethylene oxide in neighborhoods around the plant range from 17 to 97 times the AAC.”

According to the report, these estimates are “educated guesses” going off of estimate emissions self-reported by the companies. No air testing has been conducted in neighborhoods surrounding the plants. 

“In an interview, Georgia EPD said it has no plans to do air testing. It also said it has no immediate plans to require the companies to cut their emissions,” wrote Goodman and Miller. 

“It’s far too early for that,” Karen Hays, chief of Georgia EPD’s Air Protection Branch, said in an interview with Georgia Health News and WebMD. When asked whether the EPD had any plans to talk to people about the pollution near their homes, Hays said, “We have not so far.”

Goodman and Miller noted the difficulty of proving that cancer cases have been caused by environmental pollution, but 

Proving that cancers have been caused by environmental pollution is difficult, but data compiled by the Georgia Comprehensive Cancer Registry “show at least one of the cancers tied to ethylene oxide , non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, has risen significantly over the last decade, especially among men, in the 30014 ZIP code around the sterilizing plant in Covington. That’s the same pattern seen in studies of exposed workers. The EPA’s risk review noted that men who worked with ethylene oxide in sterilizing plants were more vulnerable to ‘lymphoid’ cancers — including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma — than their female co-workers.”

“People who live in the 30014 ZIP code are diagnosed with more cancers than residents in Newton County overall and in the state as a whole. In 30014, there were 527 cases of cancer diagnosed for every 100,000 people, compared with an average of 474 cases of cancer diagnosed for every 100,000 people statewide. The difference between the cancer rate in 30014 and the state is statistically significant, meaning that the increase is not likely due to chance alone. Rates of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer linked to ethylene oxide exposure, have recently been higher in the 30014 ZIP code, compared with the Georgia average. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma rates have been rising an average of nearly 7% each year from 2007 to 2016 in this ZIP code. The increases are statistically significant, according to public health officials.”

According to Goodman and Miller, “ethylene oxide molecules disperse in outdoor air, but they don’t disappear for a long time. The chemical has a half-life of about 200 days in air, or almost 7 months. That means it takes that long for just half of the chemical to break down.”

“It’s enough time that an ethylene oxide molecule that’s released will probably go around the world two or three times before it’s destroyed,” says Richard Peltier, PhD, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.In communities where ethylene oxide is steadily released “you’re being exposed to this continuously 24 hours a day,” he said.

To read the entire report

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