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EPA air test heightens fears

Staff Written News

By Tia Lynn Ivey

managing editor

The alarming results of a new air test in DeKalb may have disturbing implications for Madison. 

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (GEPD) conducted its first air test to measure ethylene oxide emissions near a medical sterilization plant in South DeKalb, which revealed levels far beyond acceptable standards crafted by federal regulators. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC),  “even miles away from any known source, the level of ethylene oxide captured by the state’s air monitor is 15 times higher than what federal regulators say could cause 100 additional cancer cases per 1 million people exposed over many years.”

Like DeKalb, Madison is one of several communities in Georgia exposed to ethylene oxide, a carcinogenic gas under recent scrutiny due to higher risks of cancer than previously believed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  The EPA reclassified Ethylene Oxide as a carcinogen in 2016, which has prompted health concerns across the country. BD Bard, a medical sterilization company with plants in Madison and Covington, is on the list facilities set for review by the GEPD due to its use of ethylene oxide. The Covington location was named in a health report from Georgia Health News and WebMD last month linking increased cancer rates to  ethylene oxide emissions, a gas that the EPA designated as a “definite” cause of cancer.  

The BD Bard plant in Madison emits even more ethylene oxide emissions 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.  

Whether or not air tests will reveal similar results found in DeKalb is yet to be known, but this first “baseline” evaluation is prompting environmental regulators to further investigate ethylene oxide levels  and its possible side effects in both Covington and Madison. 

The EPA pledged to continue working “to better understand the distribution of this chemical in the air and to identify potential sources. The EPA is not yet sure why the levels of ethylene oxide in the air are elevated…

“The sample collected at the South DeKalb monitoring site provides a measurable level of ethylene oxide that cannot clearly be linked to a particular source,” said a statement from EPA. 

The Georgia Chemical Council issued a statement warning that the Dekalb results could be misleading. 

“Because [Ethylene Oxide] is found naturally in ambient air and exists in rural areas, miles and miles from any facilities with EO emissions, concentrations show up in nearly every test. While EPA scientists are confident that EO has been detected, they are not confident in the exact reading according to Janet McCabe, who was formerly the EPA’s acting assistant administrator for its Office of Air and Radiation. She recently was quoted as saying, ‘it’s very difficult to measure such tiny amount of chemicals in the air accurately.’

According to the Georgia Chemical Council, Ethylene Oxide can originate from a variety of sources. 

“EO is emitted when plants decay, by vehicle exhaust, cooking oils, cigarette smoke and other sources. Without being able to pinpoint the exact sources through testing, determining a quantifiable value attributable to facility emissions has proven to be a challenge,” said the statement. “EO is an important chemical building block used to produce many products we use every day, such as household cleaners, safety glass, adhesives, textiles, and detergents. It is also used to sterilize medical equipment and supplies by facilities in the region, including hospitals. While we believe the EPA’s published IRIS risk assessment of EO is flawed, we are committed to continuing our work with scientific researchers, regulators and elected officials to ensure the best available science is used to protect Georgia families.” 

According to GEPD, Madison is next on radar to evaluate for ethylene oxide risks. 

“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. However, an air test was no conducted in Covington.  

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” after-all. 

“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.”

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. 

Journalists Brenda Goodman and Andy Miller, who jointly reported on increased cancer rates in Covington, noted the difficulty of proving that cancer cases have been caused by environmental pollution. 

However,  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 percent 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.”

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