Bad air quality a risk to the future of our children

Letter to the editor
Marietta Times
Oct 26, 2003

I was pleased to see that Eramet responded to my concerns about their manganese emissions (Marietta Times, Oct. 1). An issue like this needs to be kept in front of the public. I will continue to try to present the other side of the story. As I mentioned in my last letter (Marietta Times, Sept. 22), manganese is a neurotoxin and more is emitted to the air in the Marietta area than anywhere in the country. I quoted a very recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study that reported levels of manganese in the air, as measured at the Washington County Career Center, three to 10 times a level that is safe for a community to be exposed to on a continuous basis. Eramet correctly responded that the same report I quote claims that under average conditions of less than 1.5 ug/m3 adverse health effects are unlikely. The Ohio EPA collected data for three years, and the highest annual average they found was 0.49 ug/m3.

Unfortunately, DHHS considers the report we are both quoting as a draft. The author of the report has informed me that in the final version, any reference to this 1.5 ug/m3 number will be omitted. They will also back off saying that a health threat is unlikely. The only levels established for a safe level of manganese in the air are the health based screening levels. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists their screening level at 0.051 ug/m3. The DHHS show their own health-based screening level to be 0.04 ug/m3. According to my contact at the USEPA, exceeding these numbers is, by definition, a potential health risk. The USEPA has done studies showing adverse health effects even at the 0.05 level. After some review, DHHS is now agreeing with the USEPA that the levels we are seeing in the Marietta area could possibly be causing health problems. To my knowledge, there has only been three times in history when levels of a toxic emission in a community have exceeded health-based screening levels. In each case the company in question was shut down by the USEPA under Section 303 of the Clean Air Act - the "Imminent and Substantial Danger" clause. I can only assume that it has not been done in our case because people are not dying from Mn exposure. Manganese does not cause death even at absurdly high levels, but I do believe the levels we are exposed to in Marietta is causing a "dulling" of the intellect of our children, and that is much more subtle and difficult to measure.

Another point regards the emission levels as measured by the Ohio EPA. There are only two years of data available to me where I can compare the levels measured in the air by Ohio EPA with the levels reportedly emitted to the air by Eramet/Elkem. The highest of the two years, 1991, was measured at 0.49 ug/m3, roughly 10 times the screening value. That year Elkem released 202,100 lbs. of Mn to the air. In 1990 and 1994, Elkem emitted 781,000 and 753,000 lbs. respectively. No air monitoring was done during those years. Simple math shows it is probable that the levels in the air during those years were 40 times, more or less, the USEPA's screening level. The average amount of Mn emitted since 1988 from the Eramet/Elkem facility (when they started reporting emissions) has been 444,000 lbs. per year. The least emitted was in 1991, when Ohio EPA collected air data on Mn. It is obvious to me that there have been many years, if not every year, when the potential for overexposure existed.

As I reported in my previous article, lead is another neurotoxic metal, and lessons learned from it are relevant. Initially, in the '50s, a safe level in the blood was thought to be 80 ug/dL. This was reduced to 60 in the '60s, to 30 in the '70s, to 25 in the late '80s, and now rests at 10 ug/dL. My point is that as a neurotoxin is investigated, acceptable levels do not go up. I suspect that as more research is done on Mn and its effects on children, the current community health index number is much more likely to go down than up. My own work comparing Marietta fourth-graders to Athens fourth-graders has convinced me that there is some environmental influence causing Marietta children to perform more poorly. This, together with the Ohio EPA's air monitoring data, has convinced me that that something is manganese.

I have talked with Rik Melvin, the author of Eramet's Oct. 1 column. I have challenged him and his company to work with me, or Marietta College, or Ohio University, to begin right now monitoring the air in Marietta and if the levels are high, to do whatever it takes to get them down to a safe level. It seems to me to be the responsible thing for a company to do that is potentially damaging the health and potential of our children. It may be that the levels of Mn in the air in Marietta are fine even if they aren't OK at the Career Center. It may be that I am wrong and they are right. I very, very sincerely hope this is the case. But I fear in my heart that many more children will have their futures compromised if prompt action is not taken now.

Richard Wittberg, Ph.D.
1020 Hadley Lane, Marietta