The Sterigenics plant in Smyrna remains shut down while Cobb County officials conduct what appears to be a lengthy inspection and permitting process amid concerns about its release of possibly cancer-causing gas.

Sterigenics has been embroiled in controversy for months about the carcinogenic gas ethylene oxide, which it uses to sterilize medical equipment. A recent report from WebMD and Georgia Health News revealed federal estimates of elevated cancer risks from emissions of the invisible, odorless gas around its facility, which is less than a mile from the Buckhead border. Air quality testing is ongoing to determine whether there is any real danger.

The Sterigenics facility in Smyrna as it appeared in a November 2018 Google Maps image.

Sterigenics says it has always operated within federal guidelines and recently entered a consent agreement with the state to add further emissions controls. However, that work is on hold along with all operations at the plant, at the call of Cobb officials.

In an Oct. 1 letter released to the public, the county Attorney’s Office told Sterigenics it has the wrong occupany permit for the facility, which should be “high-hazard” rather than “storage.” A new occupancy permit application is required. The letter also said the emission control work needs inspection by a specialist from a list chosen by the county.

“Until review by the selected technical expert and county officials is complete, Sterigenics is not permitted to engage in construction or sterilization operations at its Cobb County facility,” the letter says, with the word “not” underlined.

In a written statement, Sterigenics said that an “extended delay” in operations at the plant would endanger patients who use the products it sterilizes.

“We continue to engage with officials regarding the process to resume operations,” the statement said. “We have made significant progress in completing the necessary construction to implement the enhancements approved by the Georgia EPD [Environmental Protection Division]. The sterilization of vital medical products and devices at our Atlanta facility is critical to keeping patients safe and extended delay in resuming those operations places patient safety at risk.”

The emission control agreement is the subject of a lawsuit filed against the EPD by state Sen. Jen Jordan (D-Atlanta) and two Cobb residents, who say the requirements should have been stricter and created with public input.

Among the local people who have expressed concern about possible Sterigenics impacts is Meredyth Cole, head of school at the Lovett School, whose campus sits about 2 miles northeast of Sterigenics. “It’s very much on our minds,” said Cole. She said local independent schools held a conference call about the situation and decided that the best course of action is “to put pressure on local governments to do independent testing” on air quality, which is now underway. Lovett spoke to a toxicologist and considered performing its own testing, Cole said, but found it “prohibitively expensive” as well as unclear how to establish scientific standards.

Sterigenics is in a legal battle over another facility in Illinois, which was shuttered earlier this year by the state following detection of high ethylene oxide emissions there. More than 30 Illinois residents are now suing Sterigenics, alleging cancer and cover-ups, while the company asserts it followed the rules and did not hide any information.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.