COVINGTON, Ga. (CBS46) – Becton Dickinson, the Covington sterilization facility under fire for exposing the community to the toxic gas ethylene oxide, has declined to go along with the city’s request to temporarily cease operations.
On Wednesday, the city of Covington sent a letter to Becton Dickinson officials asking them to stop operations that involve ethylene oxide until they prove they can control the facility’s emissions.
Mayor Ronnie Johnston tells CBS46 News independent air quality testing showed alarmingly high levels of ethylene oxide, which Becton Dickinson (BD) uses to sterilize medical equipment.
“Given the results of our independent air test, the Covington City Council and I have no choice but to ask BD to do the right thing for their employees and neighbors and temporarily cease operations at their Covington sterilization facility until additional safeguards are in place and we have data verifying the efficiency of those safeguards,” said Johnston.
The city said it contracted with a third-party company called Montrose Air Quality Services to test the air in the area over a week-long period.
Ethylene oxide is a clear, odorless gas that companies like BD have been permitted to use for decades. In recent years, the gas has come under scrutiny after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency listed it as a carcinogen. The EPA said exposure to ethylene oxide increases the risk of lymphoid cancer and, for females, breast cancer.
BD was under scrutiny for an 8-day leak of ethylene oxide earlier this year. That leak was caused by a valve that wasn’t closed.
The Sterigenics company in Smyrna has also made news because of its ethylene oxide emissions and has been under intense public pressure over the emissions.
But the people of Covington largely have kept quiet publicly about their concerns. BD is one of the largest employers in the city of 14,000.
“There’s 750 employees,” said Johnston. “Some have families and kids, so it is not something we take lightly at all.”
“I had somebody send me something this morning, ‘You need to ask that they cease and desist” and all this stuff,” the mayor said. “I’m like, first off, I don’t have the authority to do that. Second, I want to work with them as a partner because they’ve been a great partner with us.”
After receiving the letter from city officials, Becton Dickinson officials released a statement that essentially downplayed the potential risks of ethylene oxide.
The statement reads in part, “As expected, the results vary widely, which is generally consistent with ethylene oxide (EtO) monitoring. EtO in the air can come from many sources, including humans, and measurements are in very small amounts (micrograms of EtO per cubic meter of air), so there can be a high degree of variability among measurements with no clear explanation for it.”
In a letter responding to the city’s request, Becton Dickinson officials wrote, “Given the results you presented and interpretation of that data from leading toxicologists, we will continue operations as normal at our Covington facility. There are absolutely no short- or long-term risks that would necessitate any reduction in operations at the site.”
Johnston said he remains committed to creating a safe environment for the citizens of Covington. He’s now asking the EPA, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, and Gov. Brian Kemp to get involved.
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