COVINGTON — Residents concerned about the legal emissions of ethylene oxide (EtO), a cancer-causing chemical, by BD Bard packed into the Historic Newton County Courthouse Tuesday night for a meeting hosted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It was standing-room-only in the second floor Board of Commissioners chambers, and some residents were turned away because the room was filled to capacity.

The EPA organized the community meeting and brought in representatives the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD), the Agency for Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry (ATSDR), and the Georgia Department of Public Health (GDPH). The audience heard presentations on the current knowledge of ethylene oxide and the facilities using it, and on health concerns related to the gas, which is used by BD and other plants for medical equipment sterilization. Citizens were allowed to write down questions prior to the meeting, but a facilitator asked the questions and no comments were allowed by residents.

The EPA did allow Jason McCarthy, the president of “Say No to EtO,” a Covington group with the mission of removing cancer-causing sources such as ethylene oxide from the community, to speak on the issue near the beginning of the meeting.

McCarthy stated that with the EPA and EPD not letting citizens know in 2018 about Covington being an area of concern around the BD plant, the citizens’ trust has been broken. He said residents are looking for leadership, such as that of the Covington City Council, which Monday night approved contracting with an independent air monitoring company to take and analyze air samples around BD. McCarthy also asked why Newton County and the state are not joining with Covington to assist in paying for the monitoring.

The first question was why the public was not informed of the risk of the emissions in 2016 when ethylene oxide was determined to cause cancer.

Kelly Rimer of the EPA said while it was determined in 2016 that EtO causes cancer, it wasn’t until August of 2018 when they determined the high risk areas such as Covington.

Dr. Ken Mitchell of the EPA admitted that the public should have been informed then.

“We should have told you,” he said. “This is a learning experience for us. We didn’t tell you because we wanted to be sure about the information by having the testing done by EPD to verify it before we released it to the public. In the future we’ll be more thoughtful in how we communicate with the public.”

In response to a question of why BD has not been shut down, Karen Hays of EPD said the plant is following the law and its permit, and that its emission levels are not illegal.

Mitchell added that EPA follows the federal Clean Air Act. He said they can close an industry, but that “the bar is set very high.” When Mitchell noted their concern about putting people out of work, the crowd reacted with muttering, with one person being heard to say “We’re dying.” Mitchell said if an industry is violating the law, they will be shut down.

When asked why they accept self-reporting from industries, Mitchell said EPA has limited resources and personnel and does not have enough personnel to be able to do their own testing.

Asked how EPD will do its air testing around BD, Hays said they will collect air samples over several months on a weekly schedule of one in every six days. She said they will start in four quadrants around BD at 1/4-mile, then can expand it outward if needed.

In regards to the health risks from exposure to ethylene oxide, lymphoma and leukemia are the cancers most frequently reported, with stomach and breast cancers also associated with EtO exposure.

Cherie Drenzik of GDPH said they track cancer data in Georgia and their most recent complete data is from 2016.

“Preliminary analysis of cancer incidents in the 30014 ZIP code did not show increased rates of cancer overall for any cancers associated with ethylene oxide,” said Drenzik. “But this is just the first step. We calculate incidence rates in small geographic areas of risk, such as census tracts and within 1 mile of the facility.”

Abby Mutic of the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit of the GDPH, said once EtO enters the body, usually through breathing, it stays in the body for 45-60 minutes, and that the likelihood of it being found in a medical test is highly unlikely.

She said that children have a higher exposure risk, and that ethylene oxide in higher amounts has been shown to increase the risk of miscarriage in pregnant women.

In response to a question of other ways to sterilize medical equipment rather than using EtO, Mark Johnson of ATSDR said the EPA is offering incentives to industries to find other ways to sterilize equipment.

The last question asked was what about those who already have cancer.

None of the representatives appeared willing to answer the question, but Johnson finally said that they are primarily focused on making the citizens safe now. He said in the past the risk may have been greater, but they don’t have data on that.

Dr. Mitchell wrapped up the meeting by stating that EPA and EPD “plan to go forward and communicate better.”

Those wanting more information on ethylene oxide emissions and what is being done in Covington can go to www.epa.gov/covington-eto. The presentations and questions and answers from Tuesday night will also be on that site. Those with other questions can email EPA at Region4ETO@epa.gov.

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.