ATLANTA — Sterigenics President Phil Macnabb was greeted at the state Capitol on Thursday with two satirical protest signs associating him with Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons” and his company with “lies, leaks, fires, explosions, cancer and pollution.”
Macnabb, the head of an Illinois-headquartered multinational medical sterilization company with a plant in Cobb County since 1972, was called to the Capitol in downtown Atlanta to testify before a joint meeting of the Cobb and Fulton county legislative delegations.
Sterigenics’ use of ethylene oxide, a toxic gas linked to cancer the FDA says is the only effective method of sterilizing some commonly used medical devices and equipment, has been concerning metro Atlantans since July when increased cancer risks surrounding the company’s Cobb plant and other facilities were widely publicized.
Macnabb is confident Sterigenics’ Cobb facility and his company’s other 17 plants using ethylene oxide globally are safe.
“I would live next to one,” he told the MDJ.
About 30,000 people live within two miles of Sterigenics’ Cobb plant, on an Olympic Industrial Drive section near Smyrna and Vinings, where almost two million medical devices and pieces of equipment are usually sterilized with ethylene oxide every day.
Macnabb spent the first hour of Thursday’s meeting detailing for legislators the company’s local operations and efforts to find alternative sterilization methods. He also spoke about work being done to reduce emissions and to keep employees and the wider community safe.
When the facility, currently closed for emissions control upgrades, reopens at a date yet to be determined, it will prevent 99.99% of all air inside from getting out, Macnabb said.
That’s more control than any other such facility in the country, and a new national standard that Sterigenics will aim to meet with all its plants using ethylene oxide, he said.
Fourteen state senators and House representatives from Cobb and Fulton participated in the two-and-a-half-hour meeting in the Paul D. Coverdell Legislative Office Building, next door to the Gold Dome.
They asked some hard questions of Macnabb, but actually reserved the most heat for two people at the head of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division — the state agency responsible for protecting citizens from pollution.
Georgia EPD Director Richard Dunn and Air Protection Branch Chief Karen Hays were grilled by legislators on their handling of data showing increased cancer risks in communities surrounding several industrial sites where ethylene oxide is used, including Sterigenics’ Cobb plant.
Dunn and Hays, who both live within a few miles of that plant, were privy to this information in mid-2017 but did not alert the public or the governor’s office, instead undertaking more emissions modeling in an effort to better understand the risk.
A news article by Georgia Health News and WebMD in July of this year beat the EPD to the data reporting, sparking a public distrust in the state agency that has yet to diminish.
“We’ve learned some lessons that we will not forget,” Hays said. “If we were to do this over again, we would notify the public much sooner than we did.”
Her acknowledgement did little to appease legislators, however.
“You don’t need to wait until someone dies and then figure it out,” State Rep. Derrick Jackson, D-Tyrone, said to Dunn and Hays. “We’re better than this. We have the CDC here, we have the best minds here, we should be figuring this out for ourselves, we should not be here at this state right now.”
State Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Sandy Springs, was also vocal about Hays and Dunn’s approach to managing facilities using ethylene oxide, particularly since the chemical was reclassified as a carcinogen in 2016.
Jordan said the Georgia EPD should have taken heed when Illinois’ environmental agency shut down a Sterigenics plant there in 2018 while assessing appropriate emissions as a precautionary measure in response to public health concerns.
The Illinois plant was recently allowed to reopen, and Jordan said lawmakers there appeared to put people before profit.
An admission from Hays that she had not communicated with her Illinois counterparts about ethylene oxide use elicited gasps from the 60-plus crowd.
Janet Rau, president of grassroots opposition group Stop Sterigenics Georgia, was given an opportunity at the end of the meeting to provide testimony and said Illinois residents have been crucial sources of information to those in Cobb and Fulton trying to understand the associated issues.
“At this point, our community doesn’t believe we can trust the EPD to make the right decisions,” Rau, a teacher and Cobb resident, said. “Instead of coming to the community or the governor’s office, they went to the company. We would suggest that continuing to use the community as a guinea pig is not appropriate.”
Also called to provide information at the meeting was Smyrna Fire Chief Roy Acree, who spoke about independent air testing around the Sterigenics plant, and Michael Power, the senior director of state government affairs for the American Chemistry Council.
Power, who lives about five miles “as the crow flies” from Sterigenics’ Cobb facility, said ethylene oxide is a crucial chemical for the health industry and many others, and exists in the air thanks to dozens of natural and man-made processes.
“If there was any chance I would be putting my family’s lives at risk, I would move immediately and I would tell my friends to do so,” Power said in reference to his children, ages 7, 5 and 2, being raised near the sterilization plant.
Several legislators highlighted that the meeting was the first time the Cobb and Fulton delegations had convened jointly on any topic in recent memory.
“That’s how important we think this issue is,” State Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs, said, while opening the session.
Wilkerson, chair of the Cobb County Legislative Delegation, said Fulton and Cobb legislators will talk again on the issue before the next legislative session begins in January, when significant change could be initiated.
“We as legislators are possibly looking at changing the law so we can protect our constituents in Georgia like they did in Illinois,” said state Rep. Debra Bazemore, D-South Fulton, Chair of the South Fulton House legislative delegation.