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‘It’s dangerous’: Some upset Sterigenics reopening during pandemic

Sterigenics is being allowed to temporarily reopen to sterilize equipment during the pandemic. But, some worry it comes at another health cost.

SMYRNA, Ga. — A company in Cobb County could help during the coronavirus pandemic, but the news doesn't come without controversy.

Sterigenics sterilizes medical equipment with ethylene oxide. The chemical, however, is a known carcinogen and research has shown emissions of it can lead to higher instances of cancer in surrounding areas.  

The community is responding to the latest news about the company reopening.

“This is our playground,” said Nicole Kelly, showing off the playground of the daycare she owns in Cobb County. 

She walked over to the edge of the playground, where some little ones were playing and pointed to a bright, shiny object. For privacy, she asked 11Alive not identify children or the daycare.

“Fun little addition to our playground,” she said. “This is a little canister right here.”

There's two canisters on her school campus. They were placed there to monitor air levels, because her daycare is located near Sterigenics.

“I’m a woman with a school, with some kids that I care a lot about, that don’t deserve to be in this situation.”

RELATED: FDA asks Kemp, Cobb County to work with Sterigenics to combat coronavirus sterilization issues

A report, released last July linked the facility’s use of ethylene oxide, or ETO, to higher rates of cancer in the surrounding area. Sterigenics closed its Cobb facility to improve air emissions, but was barred by Cobb County from reopening for the last seven months.

But, a new potential measure could help ease the shortage of masks during the pandemic. The Coronavirus Task Force announced the process of sterilizing masks is currently awaiting FDA approval. The process would allow masks to be re-used up to 20 times.

If approved, Sterigenics would be one of the plants conducting those sterilizations. 

Sterigenics and other companies have been pressured by the public since 2019  about its use of ethylene oxide.

But, after the federal request, Cobb County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Boyce issued an emergency order March 25 allowing the plant to temporarily resume some sterilization operations to help during pandemic.

Boyce’s came at the urging of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which sent a letter to Gov. Brian Kemp’s office on March 19.

RELATED: Company under fire for releasing cancer-causing chemicals sues Cobb County to reopen fully, permanently

Later, on Monday March 30, 2020, Sterigenics filed a lawsuit against Cobb County over the original closure of the plant, claiming they lost over $75,000 as a result. The lawsuit states Sterigencis is seeking” immediate and permanent relief to resume normal operation of its facility in Atlanta in order to sterilize essential medical products and devices in the interest of public health.”

In an email to 11Alive, asking if the lawsuit would affect the original order made by Boyce, a spokesperson wrote, “The chairman indicates he stands by his recently released order on Sterigenics, Beyond that because we are dealing with pending litigation we can have no further comment at this time.”

Stop Sterigenics Georgia, a group of people living around the plant, said in a statement, “We find it appalling that they would choose to prioritize a permanent reopening instead of focusing on actually helping during the Covid 19 crisis. They have been given permission to operate temporarily with a focus on items that are needed to fight the pandemic. They are now occupying county resources that are desperately needed elsewhere using the current crisis to leverage the pandemic to their advantage. It is clear corporate greed.”

Sterigenics said the lawsuit may have been filed on Monday, but the complaint had nothing to do with the pandemic.

“Beyond the current public health crisis, the need for sterilized products and devices will remain,” the plant’s attorney said in a statement.

Still, Kelly and others are uneasy about the idea and the continuous use of  ethylene oxide.

“It’s dangerous. It shouldn’t be pumped into our playgrounds and neighborhoods, period,” said Kelly.

Michael Geoffroy -- an attorney representing people in Cobb, Fulton and Newton counties in lawsuits against Sterigenics -- said “people are scared. They’re worried about COVID-19, but they are also worried about these chemicals coming out of these plants.”

Geoffroy said Sterigenics should be forced to release reports showing exactly what they are sterilizing and their daily operations. Or, the federal government should find an alternative to sterilizing the masks.

Geofrroy questioned whether face masks sterilized with ethylene oxide would be safe for medical professional to wear for a lengthy period of time.

“Is their equipment laced with cancer-causing chemicals?”

Mainline Medical, a medical supply store in Peachtree Corners, Georgia, sells face masks. On their website, for example, in a section titled "Sterilization and Cleaning Guidelines for the Face Mask", the guidelines for using ethylene oxide are laid out as such: “Face Masks may be sterilized by ETO gas on the condition that the operation ensures that the vacuum cycle used does not cause any physical damage to the Face Mask and providing sufficient aeration is subsequently employed.”

Neither Kelly nor Geoffroy doubt the need for protective personal equipment and sterilization during COVID-19. But, they hope they’re not trading one public health crisis for another.

 “I hope there is someone there at the end of the day to stand up for us,” said Kelly. “This is not a time where we need one more piece of mental turmoil at all.”

Sterigenics reiterated their "Atlanta facility is safe and fully prepared to return to its role in sterilizing critical medical products and devices to protect health care providers and patients."

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