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Investigation Launched Into Potential Toxic Gas Release At Sterigenics Plant Near Atlanta

Georgia officials are now investigating another potentially toxic gas leak from a Sterigenics facility, this time occurring in Cobb County, just days after the company was hit with a number of lawsuits for similar links at a defunct plant in Illinois.

On August 28, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) issued a statement (PDF) announcing an investigation into the Sterigenics facility outside of Atlanta, saying that it received information regarding a potential leak of ethylene oxide, and suggesting that the company may have failed to properly report the gas release.

“The incident occurred on July 31, 2019, but was not reported to EPD,” according to the statement. “State law requires that Sterigenics report leaks of ethylene oxide if the quantity is unknown or if it is more than 10 pounds.”

The Sterigenics gas release was discovered by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which revealed a company email to employees which occurred after the incident. The internal email to employees indicated there had been an “area evacuation” in the plant in the early morning hours due to a drum leaking from a gas valve.

Sterigenics officials say the release was less than six pounds, under the required reporting threshold. However, ethylene oxide is a toxic gas, which is a known carcinogen. The chemical is vital in sterilizing medical equipment.

Just days before the Georgia statement, at least 32 complaints were filed in Cook County Circuit Court, in Chicago, alleging cancer caused by the release of ethylene oxide into the air near the Sterigenics Willowbrook facility in Illinois. The cases join 11 other previously filed claims.

In March, the FDA warned that the Willowbrook Sterigenics plant, as well as another facility in Michigan, were being shut down. Both facilities sterilized medical devices, and both were reportedly experiencing ethylene oxide leaks, which is a highly carcinogenic compound.

In April, the FDA announced that the facility shutdowns resulted in a shortage of some medical devices which relied on ethylene oxide for sterilization procedures, including pediatric tracheostomy tubes. The agency has scrambled in recent months to find a replacement.

The agency indicated it was working to secure alternative locations and methods for sterilization for the devices processed at the facility; however, the steps failed to stop the shortage of breathing tubes.

The leak at the Georgia facility appears to have come just one day after hundreds of residents and government officials attended a public hearing on July 30, calling for independent air monitoring around the Georgia facility. The public concerns came after the revelation that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had released a report in August 2018 warning that there was a higher risk of cancer in neighborhoods around the plant.

However, there was no press release or announcement ever made to residents in the affected area about the risks, or even letting them know such a report existed.

That same report issued similar warnings about the Willowbrook facility in Illinois. However, in that case plant officials tried to claim that the ethylene levels were due to vehicle emissions, construction sites and anything but their facility, which specifically produced ethylene oxide.

The Willowbrook plant was ordered shut down in February by the Illinois Attorney General. Upon closing, ethylene oxide air pollution in the area plummeted 90%.

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