Local Air Testing for Toxic Gas Closer to Reality

Experts interviewed about the sample result differ on its significance.

“It’s very difficult to measure such tiny amounts of chemicals in the air accurately,” says Janet McCabe, formerly the EPA’s acting assistant administrator for its Office of Air and Radiation, responding to a question about the South DeKalb test.

“In this case, apparently, the equipment had not been checked (calibrated), so while the scientists are confident that it correctly detected [ethylene oxide] they are not confident in the exact reading,” McCabe says in an email.

The EPD says there is no known industrial source of ethylene oxide emissions — including the Sterigenics and BD plants — within 15 miles of the South DeKalb site.

The medical sterilizing industry has emphasized there are other sources of ethylene oxide, including from diesel trucks and other vehicles.

Ethylene oxide disperses in outdoor air, but it doesn’t disappear for a long time. The chemical has a half-life of about 200 days in air, or almost 7 months. The half life is the time it takes for just half of the chemical to break down.

The state’s report on the ethylene oxide sample does not include any data on wind direction at the time of the testing.

In an email, Richard Peltier, PhD, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, says the results are “not precise, and wouldn’t be legally defensible, but probably correct within 10% to 15% of the real value.”

“It would certainly be cause for alarm as this is 15 times higher than what the EPA considers safe.”

The toxic pollution issue in Georgia came to light after WebMD and Georgia Health News published a report last month. The report says that last year, the EPA identified 109 census tracts in the United States, including two in the Smyrna area, just northwest of Atlanta, and one in Covington, about 35 miles east of Atlanta, as having increased cancer risks, largely due to the use of ethylene oxide.

The Smyrna and Covington areas, which first heard of the ethylene oxide problem from the report, held recent town hall meetings where scores of residents called for air testing.

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