Hank Johnson.jpg

Congressman Hank Johnson

COVINGTON – Congressman Hank Johnson (GA-04) sent letters to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state Environmental Protection Division (EPD) Wednesday demanding answers as to why his constituents in Covington were not informed about a dangerous chemical being released into the community’s air and asking what the environmental protection agencies are doing to protect the people who live near the plant that is discharging the carcinogenic chemical.

The letters reference reports that the BD Bard plant in Covington, which sterilizes medical equipment, is releasing ethylene oxide – a chemical the EPA says causes cancer. Concentrations of ethylene oxide in neighborhoods around the Covington plant range from 17 to 97 times the acceptable area concentration or AAC.

Although both the EPA and state EPD have known the chemical to be dangerous since 2016, neither agency informed the public.

Johnson said that’s unacceptable and independent testing of the air in and around the plant should be conducted as the only data on emissions of the chemical is self-reported by the plant. No air testing is currently being done near the Covington plant.

In his letters to the EPA and EPD, Johnson wrote:

“Despite EPA’s knowledge of the significant danger ethylene oxide poses, the agency has seemingly failed to mitigate the release of the toxin. Moreover, the EPA has not issued any press releases about these findings notifying residents living within exposed areas -- failing to even notify families and communities that the very air they breathe could be poisonous. Only through diligent reporting did citizens learn of the potential peril from a carcinogenic in the air, information that the EPA held for two years. This lack of action is contrary to the EPA’s mission to ensure Americans have clean air and healthy living conditions.”

The EPA and EPD letters are below. Rep. Lucy McBath (GA-06), Rep. David Scott (GA-13), Rep. Susan Wild (PA-07), and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of (TX-18) also signed the EPD letter.

EPA letter

 Director Richard Dunn

Georgia Department of Natural Resources

Environmental Protection Division

2 Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr.

Suite 1456, East Tower

Atlanta, GA 30334

 

August 9, 2019

 

Director Dunn,

 

I write to express my concerns regarding commercial ethylene oxide emissions and the public health risk they present. I request the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) respond to my questions below within 30 days, detailing their plans to mitigate exposure to ethylene oxide and to prevent further harm caused by emissions.

 

Ethylene oxide is a colorless, odorless chemical that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has officially classified as a carcinogenic. It is most frequently used to sterilize medical devices and produces a cancer-causing gas emission that pollutes the air, threatening families, neighborhoods, and communities surrounding commercial plants.

 

In December 2016, the EPA published the results of a 10-year study officially classifying ethylene oxide as a harmful carcinogenic air pollutant. It concluded that humans exposed to ethylene oxide for long periods are at increased risk of contracting leukemia, lymphoma, and breast cancers.

 

The National Air Toxics Assessment indicated census tracts where airborne toxins, like ethylene oxide, contribute to higher rates of cancer. This study stipulated that half a million people live in tracts with identifiable increased cancer rates, largely due to ethylene oxide. Three Georgia census tracts were identified, including a town in Covington — part of the 4th District of Georgia, where ethylene oxide concentration is 17 to 97 times higher than the state’s acceptable area concentration (AAC).

 

In its mission statement, the Georgia EPD commits itself to proactively protecting human health and the environment. It also states that public involvement, consultation, and collaboration are vital to its mission. Despite these serious concerns, and in direct conflict with their stated mission, the Georgia EPD failed to alert citizens of the dangerous toxins in the air or notify them of the carcinogenic emissions. In fact, the Chief Air Pollutant officer at the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, (EDP) Karen Hays, said the department has no current plans to test the air quality surrounding the plant. In the wake of Georgia EPD’s response to this crisis, I request answers to the following questions.

 

• Will you commit to creating a specific health investigation of the Georgia communities that are at risk?

• Why did your department decide to not pursue further testing of the air in affected communities?

• According to the 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment study, the Covington area experiences 214 cases of cancer per million people exposed. Officially, the EPA considers the cancer risk from pollution unacceptable when it exceeds 100 cases per every million people. In the face of this data, how could the EPD consider the ethylene oxide emissions safe and permit their continued release into the air?

• Will you partner with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the Center for Disease Control in Georgia to monitor the ambient air quality in Covington, analyze the increased health risks, and develop methods of mitigating risks for the affected communities?

• Do you intend to maintain the permit, which currently allows Becton Dickinson to emit a toxic carcinogenic?

• Do you plan to implement new, stricter standards to reduce carcinogenic air pollutants, specifically ethylene oxide?

 

As a Member of Congress, I prioritize the safety of my constituents. My district is directly affected by the release of toxic cancer-causing levels of ethylene oxide, and I am committed to ensuring that the mistakes made here are not further perpetuated. I request a response to these questions within thirty days and thank you for your attention to these pressing issues.

 

Sincerely,

 

Henry C. “Hank” Johnson, Jr., Member of Congress

 

EPD letter

Director Andrew Wheeler

Environmental Protection Agency

Office of the Administrator 1101A

1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.

Washington, DC 20460

 

August 12, 2019

 

Dear Administrator Wheeler,

 

We write to express our concerns regarding commercial ethylene oxide emissions and the public health risk they present. We request the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) respond to our questions below within thirty days, detailing their plans to mitigate exposure to ethylene oxide and to prevent further harm caused by emissions.

 

Ethylene oxide is a colorless, odorless chemical that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has officially classified as a carcinogenic. It is most frequently used to sterilize medical devices and produces a gas emission that pollutes the air, threatening families, neighborhoods, and communities surrounding commercial plants.

 

In December 2016, the EPA published the results of a ten-year study officially classifying ethylene oxide as a harmful carcinogenic air pollutant. It concluded that humans exposed to ethylene oxide for long periods of time are at increased risk of contracting leukemia, lymphoma, and breast cancers.

 

Another EPA study, the National Air Toxics Assessment, indicated census tracts where airborne toxins, like ethylene oxide, contribute to higher rates of cancer. This study stipulated that half a million people live in tracts with identifiable increased cancer rates, largely due to ethylene oxide. Three Georgia census tracts were identified, including Covington—part of the 4th District of Georgia, where ethylene oxide concentration is 17 to 97 times higher than the state’s acceptable area concentration (AAC).

 

Despite EPA’s knowledge of the significant danger ethylene oxide poses, the agency has seemingly failed to mitigate the release of the toxin. Moreover, the EPA has not issued any press releases about these findings notifying residents living within exposed areas - failing to even notify families and communities that the very air they breathe could be poisonous. Only through diligent reporting did citizens learn of the potential peril from a carcinogenic in the air, information that the EPA held for two years. This lack of action is contrary to the EPA’s mission to ensure Americans have clean air and healthy living conditions.

 

In order to fully understand the lack of oversight on this issue, we request the answers to the following questions:

 

• How long did the EPA know about the toxicity of ethylene oxide and the areas most affected by it?

• Why did the agency neglect to inform residents of the increased danger of the air in their communities? In light of these concerns are you planning to issue a press release?

• Will you commit to partnering with an independent air testing team to identify ethylene oxide emissions in the 109 census tracts identified as having increased carcinogenic air pollutants?

• Do you plan to impose new rules on sterilizing plants that release ethylene oxide emissions?

• What are the EPA’s further plans to regulate the toxin?

• Does the EPA have plans to remediate this problem? What next steps will the agency take?

• What can the EPA do to ensure that this problem will not reoccur in the future?

 

As Members of Congress we prioritize the safety of our constituents. Some of our districts are directly affected by the release of toxic cancer-causing levels of ethylene oxide, and we are committed to ensuring that the mistakes made here are not further perpetuated. We request a response to these questions within thirty days and thank you for your attention to these pressing issues.

 

Sincerely,

Rep. Henry C. “Hank” Johnson, Jr. Rep. Lucy McBath

Rep. Susan Wild Rep. David Scott

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee

Members of Congress

Senior Reporter

Born and raised in Decatur, Ga. Graduated from Shorter College in Rome, Ga. in 1979 with B.A. in Communications. Worked in community newspapers for 26 years. Started at Rockdale Citizen/Newton Citizen in January 2016.

Stay Informed