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Judge Lifts Limited Use of Ethylene Oxide at Georgia Plant (1)

April 1, 2020, 1:19 PMUpdated: April 1, 2020, 1:47 PM

A federal district judge ordered a Georgia county to temporarily lift all limits on a medical sterilizer company’s use of the carcinogen ethylene oxide to help clean medical equipment.

Judge William M. Ray II of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on Wednesday issued a temporary restraining order to Cobb County’s Nicholas Dawe, the fire marshal, and Kevin Gobble, the chief building manager. The judge is still reviewing the lawsuit Sterigenics U.S. LLC filed against the county on March 30.

The company alleged Cobb County illegally prevented it from using its plant to “provide FDA-approved sterilizations for essential medical products,” which it says are needed to fight the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“Sterigenics shall be free to conduct its normal operations at the facility to sterilize medical products without interference of Mr. Dawe or Mr. Gobble during that 14-day period,” Judge Ray wrote Wednesday. The 14-day period refers to the length of time left in Cobb County’s emergency declaration due to the coronavirus pandemic, which the county may extend on Wednesday.

Cobb County declined to comment on the judge’s decision.

Sterigenics in a statement said the ruling enables the company “to serve the urgent needs of health care workers and patients, without product limitation.”

Sterigenics and other companies use ethylene oxide for sterilization. The toxic gas is found naturally in ambient air. But prolonged exposure to higher concentrations can harm the brain and nervous system, and potentially cause cancer.

Limits on Sterilization

Sterigenics’ lawsuit focused on Cobb County’s March 25 order that allowed Sterigenics to reopen its shuttered business, but just for 21 days, during the county’s emergency order. It also put limits on what kinds of products the company could sterilize. The company didn’t provide an immediate comment.

The county order allowed the sterilization of personal protective gear likes masks, gloves, and gowns to ward off Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. But it didn’t permit Sterigenics to sterilize IV sets, catheters, and syringes, as the company wanted.

Sterigenics alleged that Cobb County was illegally preventing the company from resuming full operations by using a “sham manufactured claim” about the plant’s lack of compliance with local county codes.

Cobb County has been under pressure from the state of Georgia and the White House since last week to reopen the Sterigenics plant, which had been shut down since August. Local regulators say the company must install upgraded emissions controls to capture fugitive releases of ethylene oxide into the nearby community.

The case is Sterigenics U.S. LLC v. Cobb County, GA, N.D. Ga., No. 1:20-cv-01382, motion granted 4/1/20.

(Updated with statements in paragraphs 5-6.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at asaiyid@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergenvironment.com

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