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High Levels of Manganese Found in Soil of Southeast Side Homes

The placement of five air monitors installed in 2017 at S.H. Bell's Chicago facility is illustrated above. (Environmental Protection Agency)The placement of five air monitors installed in 2017 at S.H. Bell's Chicago facility is illustrated above. (Environmental Protection Agency)

Test results released Tuesday show high concentrations of neurotoxic manganese in the soil of homes on Chicago’s Southeast Side.

Chicago’s Department of Public Health hired a consultant to test soil samples collected at 27 homes near a bulk storage facility along the Calumet River operated by S.H. Bell Co. The Pittsburgh-based company was cited by the EPA last summer for exceeding federal health standards for emissions of manganese, a metal used in steelmaking that can cause brain damage at high concentrations.

According to the results, samples from three homes indicated levels of manganese in excess of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s removal threshold under its Superfund program, which identifies highly contaminated sites that pose a risk to human health and the environment. Samples from one home were more than double the emergency removal level used at Superfund sites.

Sampling at more than half of the homes revealed manganese concentrations higher than cleanup standards used by some states, though below the federal threshold.

The results, shared by the city with a coalition of environmental and community groups working with regulators to address the issue, provide further evidence of potentially dangerous levels of the heavy metal, which can cause Parkinson’s-like symptoms at high exposures. A recently published study of children in Ohio found a significant link between higher concentrations of manganese in hair samples and declines in IQ, mental processing speed and working memory. 

Click to enlarge: A map shows results of soil testing to detect levels of manganese on the Southeast Side. (Chicago Department of Public Health)Click to enlarge: A map shows results of soil testing to detect levels of manganese on the Southeast Side. (Chicago Department of Public Health)

Nearly 20,000 people, including more than 6,000 children, live within 1 mile of S.H. Bell’s storage site, according to EPA data.

“Polluters like S.H. Bell should clean up the contamination that they’ve left at our doorsteps,” reads a statement from the advocacy groups, including the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, Southeast Environmental Task Force and Natural Resources Defense Council. “We also expect that the EPA will evaluate the extent of the contamination as quickly as possible.”

Last week, advocates and residents met with city, state and federal public health officials to discuss the test results. According to the environmental groups, CDPH is planning a meeting late this month on the Southeast Side to further address residents’ concerns related to manganese.

The city has also asked the EPA to conduct further soil testing in the area, according to the groups.

In a statement, CDPH highlights past and current public health efforts in the area:

“The city has taken a proactive approach to health concerns on the Southeast Side, from our work to protect residents from petcoke to requiring the installation of air monitors and commissioning a study to better understand the scope of manganese contamination that stretches back decades, to this February banning new manganese-bearing facilities from opening and existing facilities from expanding. We will not stop or slow our efforts, and we will continue to partner with the community to ensure the safety of residents in the area.”

A representative from EPA could not immediately be reached for comment.

S.H. Bell said in a statement it could not comment on the test results.

“We have not seen the data so we can’t comment on it at this time,” the statement reads. “Once we see the full report, we will determine what steps, if any, need to be taken. We continue to be in compliance with all federal, state and local regulations, and after a year of monitoring, the data shows that our average airborne manganese level is well below the federal risk level.”

At least one other facility in the area handles manganese. In December, the city denied that company's request to waive a requirement that it install air monitors to track levels of manganese and other metals.

In 2014, the EPA documented rust-colored dust on homes near S.H. Bell and considered it evidence of "fugitive dust" migrating from the company's facility. (EPA)In 2014, the EPA documented rust-colored dust on homes near S.H. Bell and considered it evidence of "fugitive dust" migrating from the company's facility. (EPA)

Chicago has taken recent steps to address manganese pollution, though environmental advocates and residents say the efforts fall short.

An ordinance approved in late March by the City Council prohibits new facilities from storing or handling materials containing more than trace amounts of manganese. For companies that currently handle manganese, the ordinance will require them to file quarterly reports with the city showing the amount of manganese they have shipped and received.

CDPH has also proposed amendments to the city’s Bulk Material Regulations that would give the department the ability to require filter-based monitors, which measure levels of manganese emissions that pose a potential risk to nearby residents.

But residents and advocates are asking the city for swifter action, given the risk associated with manganese exposure and its concentration on the Southeast Side. 

Preliminary results from an ongoing study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that children on the Southeast Side had higher levels of manganese in their toenails than children in other parts of the city, though the researchers said it was too early to draw conclusions about the link between manganese expsoure and health issues among the study's subjects. 

“[CDPH] has not properly equipped health care providers to talk to their patients about exposure to this neurotoxin,” the advocacy groups said in a statement. “Concerned community members don’t know who to turn to for questions on treatment or the dangers of exposure to manganese.”

CDPH recently updated its website with information about manganese, including tips for protecting residents from manganese dust.

Contact Alex Ruppenthal: @arupp aruppenthal@wttw.com | (773) 509-5623


Related stories:

Chicago Looks to Ban Future Manganese Operations

Feb. 28: A brain-damaging pollutant found at high levels near thousands of Southeast Side homes would be banned at future industrial sites under a new ordinance introduced by city officials Wednesday.


S.H. Bell’s Manganese Dust-Control Plan OK’d by City

Jan. 2: Chicago public health officials have signed off on a Southeast Side company’s updated plan to cut emissions of brain-damaging manganese dust that regulators say pose a health risk to nearby residents.


Chicago Will Require Storage Company to Install Air Monitors

Dec. 22: A Southeast Side company must install air monitors to detect levels of dust emissions from heavy metals processed on-site, according to a letter issued by the city this week.


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