By Tia Lynn Ivey
In the wake of a health report linking increased cancer rates in Covington to toxic gas emissions from the nearby BD Bard plant, The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (GEPD) has vowed to evaluate the BD Bard plant in Madison next.
At the end of July, Georgia Health News and WebMD released a joint report about the use of ethylene oxide, a toxic gas used for sterilization recently designated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a gas that “definitely” causes cancer, in various manufacturing plants in Georgia, including BD Bard in Covington.
BD Bard, a medical equipment manufacturer, also owns and operates a plant in Madison which emits even more ethylene oxide than the Covington plant. According to BD Bard, the Madison Plant emitted over 653 pounds of ethylene oxide into the air in 2018, while the Covington Plant emitted about 557 pounds that same year. The Madison BD Bard plant is located on Mary Magnan Boulevard, off of the Madison 441 Bypass.
“We pressed BD Bard on the Covington facility, so we are certainly going to press them on the Madison facility as well,” said Dika Kuoh, assistant chief for the Air Protection Branch of the GEPD, who estimated the agency’s review of the Madison plant would happen later this year.
The health report, written by Brenda Goodman of WebMD and Andy Miller of Georgia Health News, argues the cancer rates in Covington are higher than in surrounding communities and could be exacerbated the ethylene oxide emissions from Bard. Goodman and Miller note that the company is within the legal limits of emissions, but argue those standards were put in place before the ethylene oxide was upgraded to a carcinogen and placed on the EPA’s list of gases that “definitely” cause cancer.
Kuoh elaborated on the recent evaluation of the Covington Plant and the coming- soon evaluation for the Madison Plant. According to Kuoh, the GEPD has cleared the Covington plant, determining that emissions are below the agency’s “dangerous level” threshold.
Kuoh explained that the 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) from the EPA initially indicated that the Covington near BD Bard had a cancer risk is above the “acceptable” range of 100 cases of cancer for every 1 million people exposed to ethylene oxide emissions. NATA estimated 214 cases of cancer for every 1 million people exposed. But according to Kuoh, upon further investigation, the GEPD determined cancer risks to be in the “acceptable range” afterall.
“While we always want the lowest risks possible, when the EPA comes out and says this doesn’t rise to the level of maximum cancer risk, that is a very good place to start,” said Kuoh. “I’m not saying it’s enough, but it’s a good start.”
According to Kuoh, even though the 2014 NATA report showed elevated cancer risks, once the GEPD conducted “modeling” evaluation, the risks were determined to be under the 100 cases of cancer per 1 million people exposed. Kuoh explained that modeling is a more thorough evaluation, verifying companies’ emission data and examining several factors such as buffers between the plant and residential areas.
“The only way we can know for sure what is going on is through modeling,” said Kuoh. “Whatever comes out of the stack at the facility disperses into the atmosphere. The dilution factor is going to be different from breathing in air at the fence line to breathing in air further out. The concentration level also depends on the wind and other meteorological conditions, as well as buffer lands in between the facility and residential areas.”
According to Troy Kirkpatrick, a spokesperson for BD Bard, the GEPD review has vindicated the company.
“These statements confirm that BD’s emissions are within acceptable risk levels as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and even though our current EtO emission controls are among the most effective in the industry, BD is currently working closely with Georgia EPD to implement additional voluntary improvements to further reduce emissions in Covington and Madison as part of our efforts to continuously strive to improve air quality controls at our facilities,” said Kirkpatrick. “We invest in and deploy the 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. 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.”
Kuoh and Kirkpatrick both promised to explore going “above and beyond” current standards to lower any risks to public health even further.
Goodman and Miller noted the concerns surrounding the potentially outdated legal standards for ethylene oxide.
“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,” reported Goodman and Miller.
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.”
Kuoh conceded that the EPA is also investigating whether or not the current legal standards for ethylene oxide emissions, set in 2005, need to be revised in light of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a federal agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services based in Atlanta, deemed ethylene oxide a carcinogen.
“We are currently trying to determine how pervasive the problem is,” said Kuoh. “[The EPA] is trying to get a background on it and get information to revise federal standards for sterilization facilities. We are hoping to propose something by the end of the year.”