This story is jointly reported by Brenda Goodman of WebMD and Andy Miller of Georgia Health News.

July 25, 2019 — Twilight was falling, but the heat would not let up.

Cars packed the tiny parking lot for the historic red brick building that sits on a corner of North Church Lane, between Smyrna and Atlanta, their tires crunching through white gravel. When space ran out, they spilled down side streets.

People approached solemnly.

“Where do you live?” they asked each other. Then, after a nod of recognition, “I’m sorry.”

They came from the stately mansions that overlook the Chattahoochee River. They came from brand-new, freshly painted townhomes. They came from apartment communities and single-family homes. Some had just moved here. Some had lived here for years. Some were trying to sell their homes and leave. They all live near a plant called Sterigenics, which sterilizes medical equipment.

Now they were stuck with the same problem: dirty air.

Everyone was struggling to absorb news that broke last week that state and federal environmental regulators had flagged certain neighborhoods in the area as having higher cancer risks because of a toxic gas called ethylene oxide.



In the Smyrna area, which straddles Cobb and Fulton counties, the ethylene oxide comes from Sterigenics, which uses the gas to sterilize medical products and supplies, drugs, and spices. In Covington, which sits east of Atlanta, the ethylene oxide comes from a plant called BD, formerly Bard.

For decades, the small building where they gathered was a church, its walls ringing with the exhortations of primitive Baptist preachers. But the church was sold in the 1980s to the Atlanta Freethought Society, which encourages its members to “dare to think for yourself.”

On Wednesday, the society waived the $75 rental fee so the community could gather to hear a very different kind of evangelist: Margie Donnell, a petite blond real estate attorney and mom from suburban Chicago, who, with her neighbors, has been fighting a Sterigenics plant where she lives.

Donnell’s friend and fellow activist, Neringa Zymancius, flew in from Illinois to join her in speaking to the Georgia group, which had lately inundated their Stop Sterigenics Facebook page with questions.


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