In my previous blog, I have talked about racial environmental inequality and looked at an example of lead poisoning. As it turned out, not only had the minorities been majorly affected by this problem but also social actors, a subdiscipline in academia related to which often gets neglected. However, children are active participants in urban life. They are also exposed to different environmental flows than adults and oftentimes are more vulnerable and uniquely exposed to such environmental burdens as air pollution, because ‘they have a developing system of cell differentiation and growth that is more vulnerable to inhibition and damage’ (Vorvolakos, 2016: 2015: 205). In this blog, I will look at the example of Magnesium air pollution, what caused it and what flows and actors in the city it has affected.
The Calumet River Valley in Southeast Chicago is home to a large number of industrial sites. Construction of the factories there first began in the 1800s. Since then, many coke plants, steel and other enterprises have been built there. Even though in the 1970s the development of this zone began to slow down, nevertheless, today it is still a substantial industrial area with many factories that store and process large volumes of industrial materials. However, it is also one of the most polluted regions in the United States. Evidently, many residents of this part of Chicago are at high health risks from air pollution, especially from Manganese – one of the worst air pollutants in Southeast Chicago.
What do we know about Manganese?
Manganese is of natural origin and is usually used to make steel. Manganese is essential for the human body’s normal functioning and is generally consumed in small quantities along with food. At the same time, its excess can lead to serious health complications. It is especially harmful to the brain. Excess Manganese in the human body can cause brain damage as well as Parkinson disease and reproductive problems. It inhibits iron absorption, thereby causing anaemia. Manganese is especially dangerous for children. It leads to a decrease in IQ levels and a deterioration in memory and a slowdown in thought processes.
“Children may be particularly susceptible to the neurotoxic effects of ambient Manganese exposure, as their brains are undergoing a dynamic process of growth and development,” said Erin Haynes, associate professor in the University of Cincinnati’s Department of Public Health. In 2018, a group of scientists led by Professor Haynes conducted a study on the dependence of IQ on the level of Manganese in the body in children aged 7-9 years. Hair and blood samples were analyzed, and as a result, it turned out that elevated hair Mn concentration was negatively associated with child IQ scores (Haynes et al., 2018).
A fight for clean air
For many years, Manganese used by the factories was stored outdoors. As a result, its concentration in the air and soil samples has become significantly higher than the norm. One of the largest companies using Manganese and contributing to this problem was S.H. Bell.
About 20,000 residents live within 1 mile of the facility, including nearly 6,000 children where land samples show a significant excess of Manganese. These are predominantly low-income and minority areas. The question of protecting residents from the harmful effects of neurotoxic Manganese has been raised repeatedly over the years. In response, the Chicago Department of Health initiated a comprehensive study of the problem.
The study results prompted the authorities to take measures to ensure the safety and good health of the residents. The first measure was the introduction of a ban on the open-air storage of Manganese. It must now be stored in closed hangars. Besides, Manganese plants are now required to install air monitors at various points in this part of the city, as seen in Figure 1. For exceeding the norm of Manganese, enterprises will have to pay a fine of 1,000 to 5,000 dollars.
What happened next?
Over the past few years S.H. Bell, for instance, has spent over $ 2 million on dust control devices at the facility. This has reduced air pollution by 83%, a figure below federal standards. Figure 2 shows the outcome of the installation of filters with monitors of air pollution. As we can see, its level dropped and fell below the federal limit of 0.3 micrograms per cubic meter.
Also, the authorities of Chicago imposed a ban on the construction of new factories that use Manganese in the Southeast of the city and the expansion of existing production. Not only government but citizens are also very much concerned about the issue. Some of the activists intend to seek radical measures; they are ready to fight for the closure of facilities if Manganese pollution remains relevant.
Haynes, E.N., Sucharew, H., Hilbert, T.J., Kuhnell, P., Spencer, A., Newman, N.C., Burns, R., Wright, R., Parsons, P.J and Dietrich, K.N. (2018) ‘Impact of air Manganese on child neurodevelopment in East Liverpool, Ohio’, Neurotoxicology, 64, 94-102.
Vorvolakos, T., Arseniou, S. and Samakouri, M. (2016) ‘There is no safe threshold for lead exposure: Alpha literature review’, Psychiatriki, 27(3), 204-214.