Top Priority: MDEQ investigates dangerous gas in Grand Rapids

Posted at 10:25 PM, Mar 06, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-06 22:25:51-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is investigating the possible contamination of air near a medical device manufacturer in Grand Rapids.

Viant Medical, Inc., has operated in the city for almost 30 years but has been located at 520 Watson St. SW on the west side of Grand Rapids after moving there in 2015. The MDEQ revealed in a public meeting held Wednesday that Viant self-reported the leak of a dangerous gas last summer.

One part of Viant’s operations is sterilization of medical devices. To do so, they place the devices in a chamber to disinfect them using ethylene oxide, a gas known to cause cancers like myeloma and leukemia, as well as non-cancerous brain and nerve damage. According to the MDEQ, Viant has five such chambers, and in July of 2017, they contacted the MDEQ about a leak from one of the chambers, blaming a faulty rubber seal.

A 24-hour MDEQ ethylene oxide test around the facility on Nov. 29, 2018, revealed high levels of the gas. That data conflicted with an independent air quality assessment done by a firm hired by Viant on Dec. 6 of that same year, which showed they were in compliance.

In a two-sided letter sent to nearby residents, Viant said the MDEQ’s 24-hour test was not consistent with national testing standards and pointed out that automotive exhaust fumes can also be responsible for ethylene oxide in the air.

(View page one here: Viant Letter 1 and page two here: Viant Letter 2)

In that same letter, Viant announced they would be ceasing their sterilization operations – and use of ethylene oxide – by the end of this year. Of their 450 employees, only 12 work in that division of the company, one they called “a very small part of [their] business model and operations.”

At a public meeting on GVSU’s Pew Campus Wednesday night – not far from the Viant facility – the MDEQ, along with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Kent County Health Department, explained Viant had committed four emissions violations since August 2017 and appeared on a national list of facilities that are potential risks for ethylene oxide exposure.

The MDEQ plans to carry out more testing the week of March 18 to confirm their initial results.

In the meantime, they’ve entered into what they call escalated enforcement negotiations that could include new policies and even monetary fines for Viant, adding that the company has been cooperative.