Lawsuit Targets Georgia Plant Over Ethylene Oxide Releases

December 1, 2021

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — An Augusta company that uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical instruments is being sued by residents, the latest such suit in Georgia.

The Augusta Chronicle reports the lawsuit by 20 current and former Augusta residents claims a plant operated by Kendall Patient Recovery emitted the cancer-causing gas, putting them at risk.

At least two other such lawsuits have been filed in metro Atlanta, one against Covington-based Becton Dickinson and one against Smyrna-based Sterigenics.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed in July, blames the Augusta plant for her breast cancer diagnosis in 1999. She lived 5 and 1/2 miles (9 kilometers) from Kendall Patient Recovery.

“These individuals have been unknowingly inhaling ethylene oxide on a routine and continuous basis for decades,” attorneys wrote in lawsuit. “Now they are suffering from a variety of cancers, miscarriages, birth defects, and other life-altering health effects from their continuous exposure to ethylene oxide.”

Attorneys for the company seek to dismiss the case, saying Kendall Patient Recovery never exceeded state-permitted emission limits. The company also argues that the lawsuit doesn’t prove ethylene oxide is responsible for the illnesses of residents and former workers.

“Plaintiffs rely on a speculative chain of possibilities to reach the unsupported conclusion that their alleged injuries are actually traceable to KPR’s conduct, rather than something else,” attorneys for the company wrote.

Attorneys for both the plaintiffs and defendants did not respond to requests for comment.

Most claims in the lawsuit are related to emission levels in the past. Publicly available data from the federal Toxic Release Inventory shows much higher quantities of ethylene oxide released from the facility in previous years, dropping from more than 4,000 pounds (1,800 kilograms) in 2009 to 94 pounds (42.6 kilograms) in 2020.

In 2014, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency put out its National Air Toxic Assessment, the plants in Covington and Smyrna were flagged as potentially having issues, but the Augusta plant was not.

“The risk at KPR was lower than the other, and that’s due to several reasons, they use a lot less ethylene oxide, they recycle it, and their process just allows less opportunity for fugitive emissions to occur within the facility,” Karen Hays, chief of the Air Protection Branch for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, told the newspaper “The risk at some of the (other sites) in the state are now down to levels that KPR already was at.”

In April 2020, the Environmental Protection Division modeled the ethylene oxide levels outside the KPR facility, examining acceptable ambient concentrations. That’s the amount that would increase cancer risks by one in a million. At the nearest residential areas to the plant, the level was 1.6 to 4.9 times the annual acceptable ambient concentrations.

Hays said those levels would increase the potential for developing cancer by a tiny amount. She said the KPR plant has not triggered any additional control requirements.

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