Public Lab Research note

Ethylene Oxide Testing - Covington and Smyrna, GA

by gccummings25 | October 12, 2019 20:34 12 Oct 20:34 | #21149 | #21149

Hello all, my name is Grace Kelley (nee Cummings) and I am a graduate student in communications design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. I'm doing a project on environmental contamination with a focus on ethylene oxide contamination affecting the communities of Covington, GA and Smyrna, GA.

Ethylene oxide is an odorless and slightly sweet-tasting gas that is used to sterilize medical equipment. The EPA recognizes ethylene oxide as a cancer-causing toxin, and concluded in 2016 that ethylene oxide is 30 times more dangerous for humans than previously reported.

In April 2019, residents of Smyrna, GA learned that the Sterigenics sterilization plant put them at a higher cancer risk due to ethylene oxide emissions. In July 2019, residents of Covington, GA learned that the same thing was happening at the BD Bard sterilization plant in their city. According to the WebMD article that broke this news:

Georgia has three affected census tracts, all in metro Atlanta -- two in the Smyrna area, and one in Covington where Ann Singley lived. The report estimated that around Smyrna, ethylene oxide causes about 70 of the 114 extra cases of cancer for every million people exposed over their lifetimes. In Covington, it estimated the gas causes about 170 of 214 cases for every million people exposed. 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.

My mother-in-law lives in Covington, GA, and was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. She was in remission until 2017, when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She's still with us two years later, but other women I know from Covington have lost their cancer battles. And this issue is not confined to Georgia either--Willowbrook, Illinois is dealing with Sterigenics' ethylene oxide emissions, and communities in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, Delaware, New Jersey have been affected as well.

The scope of my project is I need to collect primary data on ethylene oxide emissions in Covington and Smyrna. Hopefully, any data collected can be a drop in the bucket that empowers these communities to speak truth to power. It would be ideal if these data can contribute to classifying these communities as cancer clusters, but cancer clusters are so difficult to prove that that's unlikely.

However, I am out of practice collecting scientific data; I haven't done so since geology class in college in 2011. I will need help collecting and interpreting data--is it even possible for a non-scientific grad student to independently test for ethylene oxide emissions? But one of the points I'm trying to make with my project is about the accessibility of science, that environmental activism isn't, and shouldn't be, exclusive to just the scientific community. I will elaborate in more specific research questions later, and link them here.

Thank you for your time and I'm excited to work with this community!


Hi Grace, Glad you are bringing attention to this issue! I was unaware of this until an attorney friend in ATL forwarded this story to me the other month. Some general questions: what other parties are or want to be collecting data (from Gov Agencies to community groups to lawyers)?

What sort of budget do you have? How much time do you have (ie does this need to be wrapped up by May?)?

Could you work with the emissions data you have and historical wind data which is freely available to reproduce this method: (the authors are v nice if you want to reach out to them) Whats nice about that is you can look at what the likely dispersal and exposure of your family and neighbors using already available data so you don't have to spend all of the money and time to conduct air sampling now as the company has a spotlight on it so they may be reducing their emissions now.

I can't figure out what is up w/ the civil enforcement on this case

You can see some of their (likley BS-y) self reported ETO data here and on TRI

These are questions just to guide process :)

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Thank you for your response! You're right in that I need to refine the logistics and parameters. There's no real budget, but because I'm a student who's not even located in Georgia at the moment, suffice to say this project would have to be frugal. Pointing me to people who have already collected data is very helpful. The timeframe is pretty crunched as well: my class ends in December, but even outside of it, this is a cause I'm very passionate about and will work on outside of the class.

At the moment it seems to be lawyers and people in the community collecting data, because a pain point of these communities is that they feel the EPA and EPD are being too sluggish about this issue. This is not to say that the government is unaware of the problem: Brian Kemp, governor of Georgia, and the city of Covington have appealed to BD Bard to close while they sort out their emissions, but BD Bard's response has been, " . . . Nah."

BD Bard just released self-reported data: The community is doubtful of that, for good reason. They really want independent scientists to test their air. Another avenue I want to explore is appealing to the CDC and public health organizations to start an inquiry into if this could be considered a cancer cluster. If the EPA and EPD are acting unsatisfactorily, maybe public health government organizations will take notice?

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