As her kids struggle in school, a mom wonders if pollution is the cause. A new study could help find an answer.
A researcher is asking families to get children on the Southeast Side tested for manganese, lead and other contaminants.
Janet Núñez worries about her two youngest children who are having difficulties keeping up with their school work — and she wonders if there is a connection to the pollution around her home in the heavily industrial East Side community.
Last year, she enrolled Iliana, 8, and Alexander, 7, in a government-funded study that tests blood, hair, saliva, toenails and baby teeth for the presence of brain-damaging metals, such as manganese and lead.
Southeast Side residents often complain about asthma and other respiratory issues associated with air pollution. But her home’s close proximity to a manganese handling operation, S.H. Bell, and other industrial sites has her particularly anxious about her kids.
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“I’m more concerned about both of them struggling a little at school,” Núñez said.
Iliana and Alexander are among 30 Southeast Side children participating in the study.
The project is led by University of Kentucky environmental health scientist Erin Haynes, who previously tested hundreds of children in Southeastern Ohio and found a correlation between high manganese levels in the body and low IQ scores. Manganese is a metal used in steelmaking and for other industrial uses. High levels inhaled can be harmful, particularly to brain function. The study will also use an instant blood test developed by University of Illinois-Chicago bioengineering professor Ian Papautsky.
“From our previous work we know that manganese can affect children’s brains and ability to learn and think,” Haynes said. “I’m interested in the Southeast Side of Chicago because the community raised the problem themselves and they have the right to know if the manganese in their environment is adversely affecting their children.”
The Chicago children will be studied for functional skills and exposure to manganese, she said.
Researchers hope to enroll dozens more children — ages 7 to 9 — in the Chicago study through the end of summer. Haynes’ previous work in the Ohio communities of Marietta and East Liverpool studied around 400 children.
The study team is offering families $100 to sign up; to learn more or to sign up, call (312) 620-6675.
Gina Ramírez, an East Side resident who was among organizers who invited Haynes to Chicago, enrolled her son Evan, 7. Ramírez’s son is autistic and though the study isn’t designed to determine links to that condition, she hopes to learn more about exposure.
“We have no data — we have nothing,” Ramírez said referring to the lack of health studies. “So this is a first step.”
U.S. environmental officials have tested soil around nearby homes. Residents have complained about the dust that coated the siding of their homes and heavy metals, and in recent years both lead and manganese have been found on Southeast Side youth baseball fields.
Several years ago, Ramírez and others raised concerns over bulk storage of manganese kept in open piles at S.H. Bell, 10218 South Avenue O, and at Watco, 2962 East 126th Street. Both companies had been cited by federal officials for violating air pollution laws. In January 2019, the city required companies to enclose their piles so they would be kept from blowing toward homes. Watco said it stopped handling the material.
Because the federal and city actions likely reduced the emissions of manganese in the air, the baby teeth may be a clue into exposure children have had in years past, Haynes said.
“This early lifetime period may be the most sensitive to the impacts of manganese on the developing brain,” she said.
In a statement, S.H. Bell said it spent almost $3 million to add environmental controls and that air monitors installed and monitored by environmental regulators show levels of manganese are below government-set limits to avoid health risks.
“We have and we will continue to do everything we can to protect our workers and community,” the company said.
Haynes’ research and studies by other academic and government officials have put companies on the defensive.
Research funded by an undisclosed “private industrial client” and produced by consulting firm Gradient disputed some of Haynes’ findings in 2018, saying that the “study provides no reliable evidence for the conclusion” that airborne manganese “negatively impacted child neurodevelopment.”
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.