Nearly 400 miles southeast of Chicago, environmental regulators have spent the past 18 years scrutinizing the quality of air in a small city on the banks of the Ohio River.
Since 1999, the U.S. and Ohio Environmental Protection Agencies have monitored air quality at three locations in East Liverpool, Ohio, a city of 11,000 residents about an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh. In the mid-‘90s, residents in East Liverpool raised concerns about emissions from a harzardous waste incinerator in the city, prompting regulators to set up air monitors.
A historically industrial city, East Liverpool is home to the largest warehousing facility run by S.H. Bell Company, according to the company’s website.
To this day, the EPA collects air samples in East Liverpool every sixth day at two monitoring stations and every third day at another station positioned closer to S.H. Bell. The EPA then analyzes the amount of metals found in the air, keeping a close eye on one particular metal, manganese, which can affect brain function at high concentrations, according to the agency.
“East Liverpool residents have been identified with health ailments consistent with chronic manganese exposure. The exposures in this community represent a public health hazard and should be mitigated as soon as possible.”
–EPA complaint against S.H. Bell
In a report published in 2010, the EPA said manganese concentrations detected by all monitors in East Liverpool had “consistently exceeded” health-based guidelines set by the agency.
EPA records show that since 2000, the annual average manganese concentrations recorded at the monitor closest to S.H. Bell’s East Liverpool facility are the highest in the country.
“East Liverpool residents have been identified with health ailments consistent with chronic manganese exposure,” the EPA stated in a complaint filed in January against S.H. Bell. “The exposures in this community represent a public health hazard and should be mitigated as soon as possible to reduce harmful exposures.”
According to the company’s website, Pittsburgh-based S.H. Bell processes and stores manganese-based metals and other industrial raw materials at six facilities nationwide, two of which are in Chicago. The company was named last week in a Chicago Tonight report examining potential manganese pollution on Chicago’s Far Southeast Side, where densely populated neighborhoods sit across the street from S.H. Bell’s South Avenue O Terminal, just south of the Chicago skyway bridge.
Although the two facilities are hundreds of miles apart, the carefully documented history of manganese emissions at S.H. Bell’s Ohio site serves as a warning for those concerned about newly discovered manganese concentrations near the company’s Chicago facility, according to attorneys for the Natural Resources Defense Council and two local environmental advocacy groups who addressed the concerns in a letter last month to Chicago's Department of Public Health.
Part 1 of our series: After Petcoke, Community Confronts More Dangerous Pollutant: Manganese
“This is a family community,” said Meleah Geertsma, a Chicago-based attorney with NRDC who co-authored the letter and is concerned about the potential risks of manganese exposure to residents near S.H. Bell’s Chicago facility. “There’s an elementary school a couple of blocks away from the facility. This is the type of population that you don’t want to be exposed to this stuff.”
Although manganese is an essential nutrient found in soil, rocks and many foods, too little or too much manganese can be harmful, the EPA said.
In 2011, EPA researchers began studying the health effects of long-term exposure to airborne manganese on residents in East Liverpool. They found that residents exposed to higher concentrations of manganese showed adverse neurological effects, including lower scores on neuropsychological tests, decreased motor function and tremors, according to the agency.
“We know now that manganese is having an effect on children in a negative way, particularly with IQ and brain function.”
–Erin Haynes, University of Cincinnati researcher
According to the EPA's website, long-term inhalation of manganese can also harm a person’s central nervous system, reduce visual reaction time and hand steadiness, and cause psychological disturbances.
“Inhaled manganese may be transported to the brain before it is metabolized by the liver,” the EPA stated in its most recent complaint against S.H. Bell in Ohio. “Exposure to elevated concentrations of manganese in the air may lead to a permanent neurological disorder known as manganism, the symptoms of which include tremors, difficulty walking, facial muscle spasms, negative cognitive effects and mood changes. It may also lead to lung inflammation and impaired lung function.”
The risk, according to the EPA and other researchers, is even greater for children, unborn babies and nursing infants.
In 2006, five years before the EPA launched its health study on manganese, a research team at University of Cincinnati's College of Medicine conducted the first study in the U.S. to examine the effects of manganese exposure in children. The study was led by Erin Haynes, associate professor of environmental health at the college.
“We know now that manganese is having an effect on children in a negative way, particularly with IQ and brain function,” Haynes said.
Haynes has since led a number of follow-up studies, supported by nearly $6 million in federal funding, which she said show a direct correlation between levels of manganese exposure and deficits in balance and motor function.
Her latest study, which will be published later this year, investigates health effects of manganese exposure on children ages 7 to 9 living in and around East Liverpool, in proximity to S.H. Bell’s facility. The study expands on a pilot study conducted by Haynes’ team in 2011 in East Liverpool.
"[Manganese] is an essential nutrient," Haynes said. "But there’s a level that becomes too high. Because everybody’s body is different in metabolizing nutrients, it varies by individual. No one knows exactly what level [is healthy], when it becomes toxic.”
With regard to manganese emissions in East Liverpool, S.H. Bell said it commissioned a review of the most recent health study cited by the EPA. The review, conducted by environmental consulting firm Gradient, concluded that the study's statement regarding elevated health risks for nearby residents was “not supported by its own analysis."
S.H. Bell also cited a letter from Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler criticizing the findings from the federal EPA study as "not scientifically supportable."
Resident: “We’re very concerned”
In Chicago, nearly 20,000 people live within a 1-mile radius of S.H. Bell's South Avenue O Terminal, which, according to the company's website, is its second largest warehousing facility. Nearly two-thirds of those people are living below the poverty level, and almost 90 percent are minorities, according to the EPA. Of those living within 1 mile of the facility, more than 6,000 are children.
“That stretch where the company is, there are homes right across the street from [S.H. Bell],” said Annamarie Garza, an East Side resident and mother who has been spreading the word about manganese to other parents in the neighborhood. “There are some poor people who live there because nobody else wants to live in front of that. And I worry about their kids, knowing that this company has this stuff coming out.”
Unlike in Ohio, where the EPA has been monitoring air pollution near S.H. Bell since 1999, it is unknown how much manganese is in the air near S.H. Bell’s facility in Chicago.
A report published in August by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found levels of manganese that exceeded federal minimal risk levels near S.H. Bell’s Chicago facility. The levels were detected by air monitors set up by the EPA to measure emissions of petcoke dust from several facilities near S.H. Bell.
Last week, a spokesperson for S.H. Bell said the company is not the sole emitter of manganese dust in the area. The company also said manganese emissions from its Chicago facility are low enough that the site is considered a “minor” source of manganese emissions under U.S. EPA and Illinois EPA air permitting programs.
"Based on air monitor data to date, there is no public health risk attributable to manganese in either East Liverpool or Chicago," the company said.
However, in January, the EPA's Region 5 office in Chicago told Chicago Tonight it does not have adequate data to know the quantity of manganese being emitted from S.H. Bell's Chicago facility.
One reason for the information shortage is that for nearly three years, S.H. Bell has avoided installing air pollution monitors at its Chicago facility, according to a complaint filed by the EPA against the company in August.
The monitors were required following air pollution violations cited in 2014 by the EPA that were not directly related to manganese. The EPA told Chicago Tonight that when installed, one of the monitors will be used to analyze concentrations of manganese.
“If I was a parent, I would want to know what the concentrations were in the air and how long my child or I had been exposed,” Haynes said.
In a settlement reached with S.H. Bell in December, the EPA required the company to take steps to reduce dust emissions, such as installing the air monitors by March 1. S.H. Bell also paid a $100,000 civil penalty as part of the settlement but did not admit to any wrongdoing.
Despite the company’s delay in installing air monitors, S.H. Bell said it has invested $1.2 million in dust control measures at its Chicago facility since 2014. The company said it is also spending an additional $650,000 on two baghouses, which are used to collect dust.
"The Chicago facility is in full compliance with all state and federal environmental regulations," the company said.
But the EPA told Chicago Tonight it continues to examine the company for compliance.
"EPA is still investigating S.H. Bell's compliance status through the installation of the particulate matter monitors," the agency said.
S.H. Bell had until Wednesday to meet a city deadline for installing air monitors.
The company said it anticipates meeting the March 1 deadline set by the EPA.
Follow Alex Ruppenthal on Twitter: @arupp
Listen: A discussion with WBEZ's All Things Considered about Chicago Tonight's series on pollution.
In Part 3 of our series, meet some of the residents who are organizing to educate their neighbors about manganese exposure.
S.H. Bell: We’re Not Sole Manganese Source on Chicago’s Southeast Side
Feb. 9: S.H. Bell Co., a company linked to potential manganese pollution on Chicago’s Far Southeast Side, said Thursday it is not the sole emitter of manganese dust in the area.
After Petcoke, Community Confronts More Dangerous Pollutant: Manganese
Feb. 8: For decades, residents on Chicago’s Far Southeast Side lived with clouds of black dust from nearby industrial sites. Now, the community faces a more dangerous pollutant: manganese.
Photography Exhibition Looks at Effects of Petroleum Coke in Chicago
July 26: For years, petroleum coke – the black, powdery byproduct of tar sands oil refineries – plagued Southeast Side neighborhoods along the Calumet River.