What you need to know about the carcinogen controversy in Smyrna and Covington

Meet the nasty carcinogen that has some metro Atlanta residents holding their breath


Illustration by Soomyeong Kim

In early September, Sterigenics, an Illinois-based company that sterilizes more than 1 million pieces of medical equipment a day, stopped production in its facility near Smyrna. Under pressure from local communities and politicians, Sterigenics was fast-tracking fixes to reduce the facility’s emissions of ethylene oxide (a carcinogenic chemical compound used during the sterilization process) in an area where residential neighborhoods are only half a mile away. Near Covington, another facility, operated by Becton Dickinson, that uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment followed suit. Here’s where things stand.

How did this come to light?
On July 19, WebMD and Georgia Health News jointly reported that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division did not inform residents surrounding the Sterigenics and Becton Dickinson facilities that the census tracts near both plants had an increased cancer risk from air toxins. In each census tract, the EPA said, “the majority of the risk was estimated to be from the chemical ethylene oxide.”

What is ethylene oxide?
Aside from sterilizing medical equipment, ethylene oxide is used to make antifreeze and plastic. It is a tasteless, colorless gas that’s odorless in the open air. In addition to causing cancer, ethylene oxide poses several risks to people who come into regular contact with the chemical, including skin irritation, seizures, adverse effects on fetal development, and liver and kidney damage. Sterigenics self-reports to the EPA the number of pounds of ethylene oxide it emits, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. The number dropped in the year the EPA labeled ethylene oxide a carcinogen, from 3,574 pounds in 2015 to 226 pounds in 2016. EPD officials say the facilities meet all current regulations.

What’s being done?
Shortly after the media coverage, state regulators ironed out a deal with Sterigenics to install new emission controls. BD did likewise. Democratic lawmakers who represent the once-red area—which voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016—called for Governor Brian Kemp to shut down the facility until tests could prove it wasn’t violating emissions standards. This week, Cobb County reclassified the plant from “storage” to “high hazard industrial,” freezing construction and withholding a certificate of occupancy. (Covington says the BD facility, which is back in operation, is coded properly.) And though it would be hard to prove whether cancer was caused by ethylene oxide or some other factor, such as genetics, several law firms are offering to help residents determine whether any potential exposure has affected their health or property values.

What about testing?
Atlanta, Smyrna, and Cobb County, where some affected census tracts are located, hired a company to gauge airborne levels of ethylene oxide in the area. The first round—which started around the same time Sterigenics slowed operations and began emitting less ethylene oxide—showed reduced emissions, but experts called for more data. The EPD expects results from its own series of tests in early November.

This article appears in our November 2019 issue.