The Sterigenics plant Smyrna was closed last fall after publicity that it leaked a dangerous amount of ethylene oxide gas. It is operating again as federal authorities pushed for it to resume sterilizing medical supplies in the fight against COVID-19. Courtesy Georgia Health News
A Georgia lawmaker introduced legislation this week that he says is the first step in better regulating plants that produce a gas that can put residents at a higher risk of developing cancer.
Rep. Erick Allen’s House Bill 774 proposes to require companies to publicly report the amount ethylene oxide gas they release into the air that exceeds state regulations. The gas that’s commonly used to sterilize medical equipment is connected to three Atlanta-area communities where residents developed cancer at an unusually high rate.
Allen represents Smyrna where the Sterigenics plant was shut down last year after state officials determined it posed a danger to the public because of its toxic vapor ethylene oxide emissions.
Covington’s BD plant was fined because of its elevated emissions.
Companies will be held more accountable under the rules in his legislation, Allen said. The bill proposes to require a company to report a leak within 24 hours on its website.
“Nobody knows what’s going on, so this will give some visibility for the community, for the public to see what type of operation the facilities are running and how much they’re releasing,” Allen said.
The threat the gas posed to those communities surfaced through a 2019 Georgia Health News and WebMd article, which sparked an outcry from residents and calls from local lawmakers for tougher state oversight.
Gov. Brian Kemp’s administration subsequently pushed for an investigation into the plants.
There are now six Georgia facilities using ethylene oxide, with locations in Atlanta, Covington, Augusta, Winder and Madison, according to the state Environmental Protection Division.
A House resolution sponsored by Allen proposes an ethylene oxide study committee comprised of House and Senate members examine the health risks and consider new regulations.
Sierra Club of Georgia lobbyist Neill Herring said the organization supports the push for transparency as a first step toward protecting the public.
Telling the people who might be exposed to the toxic vapor is critical, he said.
“Notice is more important than penalty, protecting victims is more important than punishing offenders initially,” Herring said.
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