By Theodosia Wade, Sustainable Newton Vice President
I am so proud of our community! Monday night’s meeting of the Covington City Council was a great example of how government should work for and with the people. Because Mayor Ronnie Johnston and the city council pursued independent ethylene oxide (EtO) air testing in our community, we could get facts without relying on self-reported data from Becton Dickinson (BD). The test results came back showing EtO levels much higher than that deemed safe by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). So, once again, the mayor and council stepped up and made the difficult decision to ask BD to temporarily cease operations.
Cities seek to attract businesses into their areas to provide jobs for citizens and economic activity to increase the tax base. So, this decision to ask a business to close temporarily was obviously not taken lightly. There are people’s jobs to consider. But the health effects of exposing our citizens to high levels of a known carcinogen were just too great to ignore.
Based on these EtO test results, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s office has asked State Attorney General Chris Carr to file a complaint in Newton County Superior Court to temporarily shut down the BD plant. Again, thanks to our mayor and council, these results are being used to make critical decisions based on scientific data. It’s how things should be done.
What’s at stake?
As an organization committed to sustainability, Sustainable Newton advocates for businesses, governments, and our community to embrace the Triple Bottom Line. It’s the crucial idea we can only move forward sustainably when environmental and social implications are considered on an equal footing with economic results.
It’s not that traditional profitability doesn’t matter, but we must also factor impacts to our planet and its people when responding to issues and opportunities. In this case, the financial implications for BD and its employees are a concern for us all. But we cannot let that consideration outweigh doing what is right for health and peace of mind in the communities around the BD facility.
Where do we go from here?
More air quality testing needs to be done. One week of data is not enough to show the complete picture. Who will pay for that testing? With the State of Georgia onboard, I hope agencies like the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) and the federal EPA will combine forces (and funds) to secure the necessary testing. It’s the only safe, reliable way to make the right long-term decisions for our community and for BD.
Also, what about the health concerns of those already exposed to EtO over the past few decades? I was pleased to see the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) has put together a team to perform an official Public Health Assessment for the community, fanning out from the BD plant. The Georgia Cancer Registry records incidences and kinds of cancer by zip code, but that is not an accurate reflection of the health impacts specifically related to the BD situation. A more comprehensive study, looking at cancer and other health issues fanning out from BD, would make more sense and it looks like what the ATSDR study will do.
It was good to hear Sue Casteel, head of the ATSDR team, say she will be available via email if we have questions, and she will be spending time in our community. Knowing this group is working to determine the health effects for us as community members is reassuring.
Mayor Johnston joked about “the guys in the orange shirts” – referring to citizens organized to “Stop EtO” -- saying he hoped they would continue to work together. He expressed appreciation for their efforts to help find solutions for this issue. It does take citizens working together with each other and with government officials to strengthen communities. Government leaders cannot do it all, they need help and input from engaged community members who take time to learn about issues, have different perspectives, and seek answers that work for all.
As citizens, we must stay involved with this issue, so if things do not seem to be going right, we can ask the right questions. We need to be part of the process, so that nothing slips through the cracks or goes undetected. Working together with our government officials, we can do so much more than any group can do on their own.