Dozens sue Augusta plant, alleging exposure to cancer-causing gas

Published: Nov. 9, 2021 at 7:26 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Ethylene oxide. It’s something you’ve probably never heard of, but it’s a toxic gas blamed on problems in our own backyard.

Right now, two dozen people are suing a sterilization plant near the Augusta Regional Airport and Phinizy Swamp, claiming it knowingly exposed them to the gas, leading to cases of cancer.

Ethylene oxide is mainly used to sterilize hospital equipment and make plastic – a $3.5 billion-a-year industry in the U.S.

But in 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency found the chemical is actually 60 times more toxic to children than originally thought, and 30 times more toxic to adults. It’s been on the EPA’s radar since the mid-1980s, but the 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 is that the suit claims no one knew, and that includes Augusta-Richmond County commissioners.

“The thing that disappoints me is that there has been no discussing about this publicly from EPA and EPD,” said Augusta Commissioner Alvin Mason, District 4.

Each of the plaintiffs lived or worked within about a five-mile radius of the plant for as briefly as five years to as long as 53 years. The suit says all of the plaintiffs “Have been unknowingly inhaling ethylene oxide on a routine and continuous basis for decades.” The suit points to nine cases of breast cancer, nine miscarriages, lymphoma cases, prostate cancer, aggressive brain cancers and more.

“Knowing I’m from Augusta, and so we always hear about the cancer cases here, and you know there have been reports done in the past of cancer cases being higher than other areas of the country, and when you hear these things, it makes you wonder are these air quality issues one of the reasons why cancer rates are higher,” said Commissioner Brandon Garrett, District 8.

While the plaintiffs didn’t know about the risks, the lawsuit alleges KPR did.

In the 1980s, the EPA issued a letter to ethylene oxide users and emitters, including KPR, explaining the negative health effects of the gas. In 1986, the EPA tested the amount of ethylene oxide in the air being emitted from KPR and found it was 584 times the current acceptable limit.

Emissions at the plant have gone way down since the 1980s and ‘90s. But we found the most recent modeling report from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division shows the annual emissions in the three closest neighborhoods to the plant are 1.6 to 4.9 times higher than the acceptable ambient concentrations or AAC. This represents the number of chemical particles that are present in the air.

“I was a little surprised and disappointed at the same time,” said Mason.

“It’s really disturbing to know that there may be a facility here that may be exceeding the EPA guidelines and really putting Augusta residents at risk,” said Garrett.

The suit says because of how dangerous and carcinogenic ethylene oxide is, “Even exercising reasonable care, 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 yet, but I want them to know that ongoing were going to be looking at this as well as making sure that all our plants are in compliance,” said Garrett.


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