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Cancer Fears Over Ethylene Oxide In Georgia


For decades, the chemical ethylene oxide has been used to make everything from antifreeze to detergents to adhesives. It's also widely used to sterilize medical equipment. The data from the Environmental Protection Agency has shown something disturbing. Those who live near industrial facilities that emit the compound have a higher risk of developing cancer. As Jim Burress reports from member station WABE, that's prompting calls to shut down two facilities in Atlanta's suburbs, including one in Cobb County.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What size T-shirt would you like?

JIM BURRESS, BYLINE: Behind a folding table in the foyer of the Cobb County Civic Center, Mary Coons is surrounded by bright orange T-shirts, signs and bumper stickers with ETO on them. That stands for ethylene oxide. They say things like Say No To ETO and ETO Must Go.

MARY COONS: I care about my community. I care about my neighborhood and the little girls that play next door. And I don't want them to grow up having to go through what I went through.

BURRESS: What Coons went through is breast cancer. She lives about three miles from Sterigenics International's Smyrna, Ga., plant. While she can't say for certain the facility's ethylene oxide emissions caused her cancer, she can't ignore the possibility.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Our first panel is on the past and current knowledge of ethylene oxide.

BURRESS: Coons, like many of the thousand or so people at this EPA-sponsored town hall, hoped for answers. Kelly Rimer, who leads the EPA's Air Toxics Assessment Group, tells a crowd science is always moving forward.

KELLY RIMER: And, recently, the new studies about the chemical ethylene oxide tells us that it's more potent than science previously understood.

BURRESS: More potent than science previously understood, she tells the audience. But two hours in and many have walked out, frustrated. Count Smyrna resident Sue Levine among them.

SUE LEVINE: They should be sounding the alarm bells and closing down these ETO places until they can find out if it can even be safely used.

BURRESS: Instead, residents have banded together, including with folks who live near a Sterigenics plant in Westbrook, Ill. (ph). That state's governor temporarily shut down the facility in February. Jen Jordan, a Democratic state senator whose district includes Sterigenics' Georgia plant, called on this state's Republican governor to do the same.

JEN JORDAN: Everybody is on notice that we're not just going to sit back and be spoon-fed information and be expected just to take it.

BURRESS: Georgia Governor Brian Kemp did meet with Sterigenics executives who agreed to decrease the plant's ethylene oxide emissions. They point out, though, those emissions have always been within federal limits.

For NPR News, I'm Jim Burress in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FOREBEE'S "SWITCH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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