Dangerous Chemicals Like Ethylene Oxide: The Rattlesnake Problem

By November 13, 2019Environmental Laws

With the ethylene oxide facility (EtO) in Willowbrook, Illinois closed permanently, and the facility in Smyrna, Georgia closed indefinitely, more attention should be placed on facilities that remain open and operational, such as the one in Covington, Georgia, that continues to use EtO. Several troubling facts make it hard to justify the use of EtO when the threat to nearby human lives remains. These are the facts:

  • EtO is a known cancer-causing carcinogen. Studies to date non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia and multiple myeloma are all cancer types linked to EtO exposure. Breast cancer has also been strongly linked to EtO exposure.
  • The EPA states EtO is unsafe for human exposure at any level.
  • EtO is highly explosive. An explosion in Smyrna, Georgia of just 2.6 pounds of EtO threw a man and a forklift over 30 feet in the air. https://www.ajc.com/news/local-govt–politics/explosion-gas-leak-raise-fresh-safety-concerns-sterigenics-plant/8GE8EEh3EjSDVtqpEH4kkL/
  • Several plants in Georgia store thousands of pounds of EtO. These facilities have reported multiple leaks in the past, and admitted they do not report all leaks.
  • All reporting on EtO emissions in Newton County and Fulton County are self-reported and based on “modeling,” no one has ever measured or tracked the actual amount of EtO coming out of the plants, not the companies themselves, not independent auditors, and not any government entity.

EtO emissions from plants in Covington and near Smyrna are causing people to get cancer, the only question is how many.

Despite all of this, many people are not aware of the true dangers of EtO exposure. One reason is that EtO is a silent killer, it cuts off your genetic DNA code in your cells causing mutations that lead to cancer. The chemical is colorless, almost odorless and may not cause cancer or other health problems until years after exposure.

But we should think about EtO as a deadly, venomous rattlesnake. What if instead of EtO, we all recently found that BD Bard and Sterigenics had been importing thousands of rattlesnakes into our community to make their products. And we had confirmed that some of those rattlesnakes were seriously injuring and killing the people who lived and worked near the plants. Would that be ok?

BD Bard and Sterogenics continue to cry, “Trust us, we use rattlesnakes in a safe way to make our products.” They also insist on telling us that based on their own testing, with no oversight or government inspection, that 99.99% of rattlesnakes are not released to the public. Which begs the question, exactly how many rattlesnakes are released, and how do we know those numbers are accurate?

We also hear BD Bard and Sterigenics continue to cast doubt on any of their neighbors, who suggest EtO could have been a cause of their cancer. It is as if they are asking, “How do you know one of OUR rattlesnakes bit you? People across Georgia get bit by rattlesnakes every day. You can’t blame our company for every rattlesnake bite.”

There are many questions yet to be answered: was the unexpectedly high cancer rate in Newton County caused by EtO, are all of the neighbors of BD Bard and Sterigenics still being exposed to Eto? However, there are powerful forces at work trying to make all the questions go away. BD Bard tells us there is nothing to worry about, everything is fine, but be aware of that rattlesnake in the bush.

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