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Belton: Ethylene oxide release is top priority
Belton, Dave
State Rep. Dave Belton

A recent development has occurred on the internet which I want to address. A WebMD article was recently written that expressed concerns about the risk of cancer caused by ethylene oxide (EtO). 

Given the tone of that article, I want to make it clear that this concern is at the forefront of my attention. My commitment to you is that I will remain vigilant – both with federal and state agencies – to monitor and reduce this risk. The health and wellbeing of the citizens of Morgan and Newton counties are my only concern.

EtO is a natural chemical that is found in small quantities in nature. It is literally everywhere in small quantities (as well as naturally inside of you), and is caused by many natural and man-made processes including car emissions. It is used in large quantities for many purposes, including making anti-freeze, detergents, plastics, cosmetics and to sterilize medical equipment.  

This WebMD article asserts that the air quality in Smyrna and Covington is unsafe because of businesses in those communities that use EtO. Though Madison was not mentioned in the article, BD (formerly known as Bard) also conducts the same business there (as well as in Covington).

The federal EPA and Georgia EPD have both clarified the conclusions of this article. Both BD plants have proved that they eliminate 99.95% of the EtO that they use, which is much better than the 99% requirement (and also better than the Smyrna plant). Both plants are currently voluntarily working on reducing their emissions even further. The emissions at the Smyrna and Covington and Madison plants are all tested by third parties. 

So what was the basis of the article’s claim?

Decades ago, the “Clean Air Act” of 1990 established a 100 per a million standard for the EPA. This standard means that – over a lifetime of exposure if an average of 100 out of a million people might be expected to get cancer because of chemicals in the air – then the EPA would step in and demand action. That is .0001% or one person in 10,000, about the same chances of a person being struck by lightning. The “normal” chances of getting cancer in “normal air” in the U.S. using this model is about 32 per million.

The federal EPA recently released a report called the “2014 NATA” that said Smyrna and Covington have “potentially greater cancer risks” because of EtO. This is not due to new air quality data, but rather from the newly discovered science (described in a different report in 2016) which determined EtO is more dangerous than previously thought. These results were only published very recently. 

This 2014 NATA report – combined with the new 2016 data – created a mathematical analysis that determined both Covington and Smyrna were over that 100 per million standard. This report also noted both cities have plants that use EtO to sterilize medical equipment. 

The problem is complicated by the fact that EtO seems to be everywhere (though usually at lower levels than in Smyrna and Covington). Due to new scientific scanning procedures, the EPA has been very surprised to find that EtO exists even in rural areas, miles and miles from any plant. 

After receiving these results, the EPA then went back to Smyrna and Covington and determined with more precise measures that they are actually “significantly lower” than the 2014 NATA estimates and were also both below the 100 per million standard. The EPA further noted the EtO levels in these areas “were not likely high enough to cause immediate harm to health.”

To be clear, both plants are in full compliance with all federal and state regulations. There is no evidence that anyone has gotten cancer from their emissions. The reason for the concern is based solely on theoretical mathematical data.

To be safe, however – and because of the new science – the EPA is currently in the process of changing federal regulations about EtO. That determination is expected later this summer. 

Obviously, we need more and clearer information. Governor Brian Kemp, Senator Brian Strickland, myself, Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston and the entire Covington City Council has been fully engaged in this issue from the very start. We have arranged for a Town Hall to be held in Covington on the 20th of August to discuss the situation: time and place to be determined. There, we – along with the federal EPA and the Department of Public Health and the Georgia EPD – will answer your questions. 

In addition, Johnston and the Covington City Council has decided to pay for independent testing, as well as form a “Covington Breathes” committee to ensure our air quality is safe.

Meanwhile, I will continue to focus on this issue and to consider all options to keep our community safe. If you have questions, please feel free to contact me at 706-372-4114 or

Belton is a Republican from District 112, serving in the Georgia House of Representatives.