COVINGTON, Ga. — Two area residents allege that longtime exposure to a chemical a Covington industry emitted into the air led to their cancer diagnoses.
Gena McClendon says in a lawsuit filed in State Court of Gwinnett County that her exposure to ethylene oxide emitted from the BD Bard plant led to her July 2019 diagnosis of multiple myeloma.
Attorney Michael Geoffroy, who lives near the plant in Covington, is among a group of attorneys working on the case and numerous others against the company.
“There are a lot of people who are scared,” Geoffroy said during an online press conference today, Sept. 8. “We’re doing everything we can to get justice.”
BD and its predecessors have operated the facility for more than half a century, since 1967, in Newton County. It employs a total of about 1,000 at three different locations in northeast Covington.
McClendon’s lawsuit states BD stored the chemical in the Covington plant, used it in its processes and emitted it from the facility into the air during the 27 years she worked at two Newton County health care centers.
Her lawsuit says BD Bard was negligent when it emitted excessive volumes of ethylene oxide and used it instead of safer options for sterilizing medical equipment.
She alleges that the plant was a public nuisance because its operator failed to warn residents and those working near the facility of the dangers associated with the chemical.
It also accuses the company of violating the state’s Racketeer Influence And Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law because company officials and others associated with BD misrepresented to state officials the amount of emissions from the plant.
McLendon, a Conyers resident who formerly lived in Covington, worked at Merryvale Assisted Living three miles from the BD Bard plant for 23 years between 1996 and 2019, said attorney Darren Penn.
This followed her employment from 1988 to 1996 at what is now Piedmont Newton Hospital less than one mile from the Covington facility, the suit stated.
Penn said McClendon had no genetic “predisposition” or inclination toward the disease. She has undergone radiation treatments and a bone marrow transplant, he said.
The lawsuit seeks damages set by the court and demands a jury trial.
A second lawsuit by Dr. Lisa Miller, a Covington pediatrician, states her exposure to BD emissions led to her breast cancer diagnosis, Penn said.
Penn said Miller, 58, operated her medical office less than a mile from the BD plant for 11 years after working at the Newton hospital for an additional seven years.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer in July and has undergone chemotherapy and a double mastectomy, he said.
McClendon’s lawsuit said that the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2016 completed a 10-year study of ethylene oxide and found the chemical was 30 times more likely to cause certain cancers than scientists had previously believed.
A report by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the “National Air Toxics Assessment,” found Georgia had three areas of increased cancer risk from ethylene oxide, the lawsuit stated.
One of those areas was Covington where the increased risk was about 170 of the extra 214 cases of cancer for every million people exposed during their lifetime.
The EPA has ruled the pollution risk is unacceptable when it surpasses 100 cases for every million people exposed to a chemical, the lawsuit stated.
The initial filings in the case are on behalf of a “small number of almost 200 clients” diagnosed with cancer in the two locations, a news release stated.
Penn said neighborhoods most affected in the area include Settlers Grove and Covington Mill, which are predominantly African-American.
He said the lawsuit was filed in Gwinnett County because the company’s registered agents are located there.
A spokesman for BD said the company does not comment on pending lawsuits.
However, a statement from the company said “there are vast amounts of air monitoring data that provide insights to actual levels of ethylene oxide present in greater Atlanta and across Georgia.”
It said Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s latest air monitoring data showed that average levels of ethylene oxide (EtO) in Covington “are exactly the same as the levels found” in General Coffee State Park in south Georgia and below levels found at EPD’s background monitoring station in south DeKalb County, about 30 miles from BD’s Covington facility.
“The data also show that average levels across the greater Atlanta area are about the same in areas where there are EtO sterilization facilities and areas where there are not EtO sterilization facilities.
“The data suggests that those who live in communities with sterilization facilities are exposed to similar amounts of EtO as those who do not live near the facilities because of other sources of EtO, including naturally occurring sources,” according to the statement.
Disclosures of unreported releases of ethylene oxide from the BD plant and Sterigenics in Cobb County in late 2019 led to public calls for tighter regulations of such facilities.
State Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, whose district includes Newton County, introduced legislation earlier this year that was signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp in early August.
The new law requires manufacturers using ethylene oxide to report any waste spills or gas releases to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division within 24 hours. The Division’s director then must post the information on the agency’s website.