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Unhealthy air: How vulnerable are children?

People who breathe the nation’s most unhealthy factory air want to know if their daily dose of toxic pollution is slowing the academic and physical development of their children.
Dick Wittberg, head of the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department, wants further health studies on emissions from Eramet Marietta, a metal refinery plant in Marietta, Ohio, seen in the background.Mitch Casey / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The people who breathe the nation’s most unhealthy factory air worry about more than just asthma and other respiratory problems. They also want to know if their daily dose of toxic pollution is slowing the academic and physical development of their children.

In the Ohio River Valley along the Ohio-West Virginia border, factories annually send into the air hundreds of thousands of pounds of manganese dust, a heavy metal that can harm the brain and nervous system.

Biologist Dick Wittberg, who heads the mid-Ohio Valley Health Department, has been pressing for years for a full-blown government study to determine if those releases are harming the children in his hometown of Marietta, Ohio.

Several years ago, Wittberg took part in a study that compared Marietta children with those in a similar-sized Ohio town on academic and physical tests. The Marietta kids fared significantly worse.

“We didn’t do anything that in any respect proves that this is manganese that has done this, because there are other scenarios that are entirely possible,” he said. “But in my opinion, it really points to some environmental problem that is causing some neurological differences, and one has to suspect manganese. Nobody knows for kids how much is too much.”

Town mayor fights for study
Similar concerns span the country, though communities with the worst factory pollution sometimes are frustrated they don’t have more research to rely on.

In the Detroit suburb of Ecorse, which has sued U.S. Steel over decades of air pollution, Mayor Larry Salisbury wants the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate how industrial toxins affect health.

“We think there have been citizens who had an early death because of health issues related to that steel plant,” Salisbury said. “It would be great if the CDC would study certain towns to make the case.”

“Sometimes I think the government doesn’t want to know the answers,” he said. “Once they do, they have a certain liability to enforce.”

U.S. Steel spokesman John Armstrong said his company took over the Ecorse plant in 2003 from bankrupt National Steel and has spent millions cleaning up problems. “We take great pride in our environmental stewardship and are addressing these issues as quickly as possible,” he said.

An Associated Press analysis of federal pollution, health and Census data found that more than 30 neighborhoods around the Great Steel Works plant in Ecorse rank among the worst 5 percent nationally for potential health risks from industrial air pollution.

AP used health risk scores calculated by the Environmental Protection Agency. The measures can be used to compare the chronic health risk from industrial air pollution from one part of the country to another.

Bulk of risk in eight states
The study found that eight states — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Texas, Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri — account for almost half the total health risk nationally from factory air. Nearly one-tenth of the total risk is concentrated in Ohio, especially along the heavily industrialized Ohio River corridor.

Farther east, Camden, N.J., is home to more than 100 contaminated industrial sites and seven minority neighborhoods that rank among the top 1 percent in the nation for the long-term health risk posed by factory pollution.

Dr. Robert Pedowitz said his Camden practice sees about 25 patients a day for asthma or allergy complaints, more than any other private practice in New Jersey. One of the main triggers, he said, is air pollution.

“It severely affects the quality of life,” Pedowitz said. “It makes people tired, affects their ability to function.”

In the Ohio River Valley where Wittberg lives, nine neighborhoods in and around Marietta and Wood County, W.Va., rank among the worst 100 nationally for health risks from factory emissions.

There are more than 20 industrial plants along or near the Ohio River. Those plants regularly spew tens of thousands of pounds of manganese, chromium, sulfuric acid, and formaldehyde.

“It’s a toxic soup of contaminants because of all the different facilities in the area,” said Michelle Colledge, an environmental health scientist with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

The river corridor also is a major contributor to factory air pollution in West Virginia, which has the highest health risk per person of any state. Indiana ranks second in per capita health risk, followed by Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa and Alabama.

Study in W. Va. town
Residents around Marietta, with the help of Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, petitioned the government several years ago to study the health impact of the region’s air.

Tina Trombley, president of Recover, a local environmental group, said residents want to find out for sure if the high incidence of asthma and several types of cancer are the result of air pollution.

“We need to do a full-fledged study and we’re hoping that’s what they will be able to do for us,” she said.

The initial study found arsenic and manganese in the air consistently exceeded levels that scientists believe harm health. Colledge said there wasn’t enough information to determine if pollution actually was a health hazard. Further monitoring at specific sites was ordered.

The initial federal study focused on an industrial complex south of Marietta that includes four major facilities. The largest, the Eramet Marietta metal refinery, released more than 550,000 pounds of manganese compounds in 2000, and more than 25,000 pounds of chromium compounds. Another facility, Eveready Battery, releases more than 16,000 pounds of manganese compounds a year.

Jeff McKinney, environmental manager at Eramet, said neither the study nor any other data suggest that “emissions from area industry have adversely impacted the health of residents. Moreover, we have not seen manganese exposure-related neurological effects in our long term employees.”

Colledge and Wittberg said the area offers an unusual opportunity to study the impact of manganese dust on humans, particularly children.

Comparison tests
Wittberg has been campaigning for such a study since the late 1990s, when he teamed with an EPA researcher and a University of Quebec scientist to measure differences between children in Marietta and Athens, a similar-sized Ohio town 45 miles away.

They gave a battery of 13 tests to fourth-graders in both cities, who had been matched for age, sex and parental education. The tests measured such things as educational proficiency, balance, visual contrast sensitivity and short-term memory.

“The Marietta kids did worse on almost everything,” Wittberg said.

The implications are potentially far-reaching if the children’s IQ scores turn out to be 10 to 15 points lower, he said.

“Brilliant kids are now simply smart; smart kids are average and average kids are not average any more,” Wittberg said. “I believe it is the whole lives of the kids that are affected. I don’t think that the damage can be undone.”

Tuesday: Minorities suffer most from factory pollution
Coming Thursday: The obstacles to getting government, business to clean up