AUGUSTA, Georgia (WRDW/WAGT) – Ethylene Oxide. It’s something you’ve probably never heard of, but it’s a poisonous gas that’s causing trouble in our own backyard. At present, two dozen people are suing a sterilization plant in Augusta, near Augusta Regional Airport and Phinzy Swamp, alleging they were knowingly exposed to the gas that leads to cancer.
Ethylene oxide is mainly used to sterilize hospital equipment and make plastic – a US$3.5 billion per year industry. But in 2016, the EPA found that the chemical is actually 60 times more toxic to children than they initially thought, and 30 times more toxic to adults. It’s been on the EPA’s radar since the mid-’80s, but a plant here in Augusta, KPR, has been releasing tens of thousands of pounds of the gas into our air for decades.
The biggest problem the 24 local plaintiffs have with ethylene oxide — the lawsuit alleges no one knew and so did the Augusta-Richmond County commissioners.
“What disappoints me is that this has not been discussed publicly by the EPA and EPD,” said District 4 Commissioner Alvin Mason.
Each of the plaintiffs lived or worked within a radius of approximately five miles of the factory for as little as five years to as long as 53 years. The lawsuit states that all of the plaintiffs “unknowingly inhaled ethylene oxide on a routine and continuous basis for decades.” The suit points to nine cases of breast cancer, nine miscarriages, cases of lymphoma, aggressive brain cancer from prostate cancer and more.
“Know I’m from Augusta and so we always hear about cancer cases here and you know there have been reports in the past that cancer rates were higher than other parts of the country and when you hear these things you wonder about these issues air quality are one of the reasons cancer rates are higher,” said District 8 Commissioner Brandon Garrett.
While the plaintiffs were not aware of the risks, the lawsuit alleges, KPR did.
In the 1980s, the EPA sent a letter to users and polluters of ethylene oxide, including KPR, explaining its negative health effects. In 1986, the EPA tested the amount of ethylene oxide in the air emitted by KPR and found it to be 584 times the current acceptable limit.
Emissions at the plant have fallen sharply since the 1980s and 1990s. But we found that the most recent model report from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division shows that annual emissions in the three closest neighborhoods to the plant are 1.6 to 4.9 times higher than allowed by the EPA.
“I was a little surprised and disappointed at the same time,” Mason said.
“It’s really disturbing to know that there might be a facility here that exceeds EPA guidelines and really puts the residents of Augusta at risk,” Garrett said.
Because of how dangerous and carcinogenic ethylene oxide is, the suit says, “Even if you’re reasonably careful, this risk cannot be eliminated.”
“The first time I heard about it was last week so it’s been very little time for us to do anything about it, but I want them to know that we’re going to look into this and make sure all our plants are in are consistent,” Garrett said.
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