Residents of East Liverpool, Ohio – about 40 miles northwest of Pittsburgh – gathered recently to hear the results of a new study that found that lower IQ scores in children was positively correlated to exposure to manganese in the air. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Don Hopey was there and shared what he learned with Kara Holsopple.
Kara Holsopple: I understand that the East Liverpool School District Superintendent asked for the study. Why did he do that?
Don Hopey: It was the previous East Liverpool superintendent because the measurements of high manganese in the air had been going on since 1999. They were aware of that problem, and also they had a higher percentage of special education students in East Liverpool School District – 19 percent – higher than the state average which was 13 percent per school district.
KH: So say a little about manganese. What is it? What is it used for?
DH: Manganese is a naturally occurring element it’s in rocks and soil and food. It’s used in steelmaking. It’s used in batteries, and it’s really necessary for the development of childhood brains. You have to have manganese for proper brain development. The problem comes when there’s too much manganese in the environment that children are in and that was what apparently has happened here.
LISTEN: “High Manganese in Children in East Liverpool Linked to Lower IQ”
KH: You reported that the author of this study was very careful to say that the source of the manganese in air was not part of the study, that they were just looking at the levels of manganese in the children’s blood and hair and the correlation with IQ. But there is a business in East Liverpool, Ohio that processes and handles manganese as part of its business, and it’s been a longtime issue there and that’s the S.H. Bell company.
DH: The researcher was very careful not to name a source. East Liverpool is a small town along the Ohio River that has a long history of industrial development. And they have multiple sources of manganese emissions in the town even today. But the Ohio EPA has identified S.H. Bell as the primary source of airborne manganese in the town. Ohio EPA and the U.S. EPA have entered into consent agreements that have caused S.H. Bell to change their work procedures at their warehousing facility. And that has resulted in a reduction in manganese emissions from that facility. They no longer store, for example, manganese-containing materials outside on open pads next to the river where winds can pick it up and blow it into town. I should emphasize that we’re talking about here is materials that contain manganese. The company claims that pure manganese is not part of what they handle at this facility although their website does in fact mention that a very pure form of manganese is handled there and also mentions that the facility has the capability of crushing and processing various metallurgical materials including manganese.
KH: You mentioned the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency…in 2010 they listed manganese concentrations in East Liverpool up to 30 times higher than the EPA safe guideline. So why haven’t they and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency been able to do more to reduce manganese in the air in East Liverpool?
DH: Well there are two reasons. There are a lot of different sources of manganese. This is a primary source but there are other sources including the world’s largest hazardous commercial hazardous waste incinerator. The second reason is that these, as you said, are guidelines. Manganese is not a one of the EPA six criteria pollutants and as such while they know that a lot of it can cause damage, it’s not something that the EPA has set hard and fast limits on. So the guidelines are there, and the agencies know that higher levels than the guidelines could cause problems. But they’re not hard and fast limits. And so that causes some issues in terms of pursuing remedies.
KH: What does the S.H. Bell company say?
DH: The S.H. Bell company had an attorney and an environmental scientific consultant at the meeting. And she said that manganese levels are lower than required by the guidelines in East Liverpool today, and that the various studies are not valid because they didn’t measure respirable manganese which is the very, very tiny bits of manganese that might be in the air. They measured total manganese in the air. And as a result, she says, that the studies that indicate there are high levels of manganese, those high levels are irrelevant because only the smaller respirable manganese particles can be breathed deeply into her lungs and enter the bloodstream and actually enter the brain. So her position was that manganese isn’t an issue for the folks in East Liverpool. That doesn’t really explain why there are high levels of children who need special education services, and the lead author in this study did say that there could be various socioeconomic factors involved — parents IQ, parents smoking — various things that could influence their children’s IQ that wouldn’t be related to manganese emissions.
“The effects of high levels of manganese can damage learning capabilities in children, can cause memory loss, can cause slowness, and also Parkinson-like tremors.”
KH: But the children did have high levels of manganese in their bodies.
DH: Yes, the study took samples of hair blood toenails and also baby teeth from these children that were involved in the study. This study report only focused on the hair sampling. The toenail and baby tooth parts of the study have yet to be done. They haven’t been analyzed as yet.
KH: We’ve heard a lot about the impacts of lead on kids recently because of Flint and all of the other cities that are having issues with water and infrastructure. What are the long-term effects of manganese? I mean we’re talking about IQ. I’m imagining that’s not reversible?
DH: Right. The effects of high levels of manganese can damage learning capabilities in children, can cause memory loss, can cause slowness, and also – this is exhibited by people who mine manganese – Parkinson-like tremors. Other studies have been conducted around manganese smelters in Marietta, Ohio and Chicago, Illinois. And in both of those places some studies have determined that folks that live closer to the manganese the smelters do exhibit some increased tremors and some memory issues.
KH: There were about 100 kids in the study. I think there were elementary school age. Was there any talk at the meeting about how the study could be used to improve things there in East Liverpool for kids who are living there?
DH: The study’s main author did meet with the school superintendent and some other school officials this past Tuesday to talk about the results and what might be a next step. This coming spring, the study participants – they’re going to get as many of those kids as possible – and bring them to Pittsburgh for MRIs that will be done at Children’s Hospital. And the federal agencies would like to see the follow-up studies to see exactly what kind of problems are persisting in the students now that they’re in their teen years. So again there’s some things happening but it’s going to take a while.
Read more about the study in Don Hopey’s story for the Post Gazette here.