The mounds of petcoke that once loomed over the Tenth Ward are gone, but manganese could be the area's next catastrophe Credit: Sun-Times

Update: This story has been corrected to say that S.H. Bell no longer stores manganese in open piles on site and that very high levels of manganese were detected in tests taken at three nearby homes, not four.

Dangerously high levels of manganese, a heavy metal that can cause brain damage, were found at southeast-side homes near an industrial storage facility, results of soil testing released last week week by the Chicago Department of Public Health revealed.

The city tested soil samples from 27 addresses near S. H. Bell’s facility, which has in the past stored manganese in large, open piles at its seven-acre property on the bank of the Calumet River. Samples at three homes showed manganese concentrations high enough to qualify for possible emergency cleanup under the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards for Superfund sites. More than half of the homes had elevated levels of manganese that would qualify for emergency removal by some states’ standards though they didn’t reach the EPA’s emergency cleanup levels at the federal level.

The effects of high levels of manganese on the brain have been documented since the 19th century. Manganism, as manganese poisoning is known, causes symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease—involuntary muscle contractions and rigidity. Typical treatments for early stages of Parkinson’s have not been found to be effective for manganism, however. Symptoms in adult welders exposed to manganese reported in 2006 also included mood disturbances, anxiety, depression, and cognitive dullness. A more recent series of studies conducted in three eastern Ohio towns linked exposure to manganese with “reduced neuropsychological and motor functions.” Other studies have also linked manganese exposure with low fertility in men and birth defects in rats, though the effects of the heavy metal on reproductive function is far less thoroughly studied than its impact on the brain.

The newly discovered soil contamination compounds the airborne manganese pollution previously detected in the area, which led the EPA to cite S.H. Bell for violations of the Clean Air Act last August. Some 20,000 people reside within a mile radius of S. H. Bell’s facility, including more than 6,000 children. In 2014 the EPA reported that there were 28 full-time workers at S.H. Bell’s  southeast-side plant, and they may be at highest risk for severe health consequences from manganese exposure. Here’s how the CDC describes manganism among those who face prolonged exposure to manganese dust in the workplace:

This disease…typically begins with feelings of weakness and lethargy. As the disease progresses, a number of other neurological signs may become manifest. Although not all individuals develop identical signs, the most common are a slow and clumsy gait, speech disturbances, a masklike face, and tremors. The neurological symptoms may improve when exposure ceases; however, in most cases, the symptoms are found to persist for many years post-exposure. In addition, a syndrome of psychological disturbances (hallucination, psychosis) frequently emerges, although such symptoms are sometimes absent. As the disease progresses, patients develop severe muscle tension and rigidity and may be completely and permanently disabled.

John Holden, spokesman for S. H. Bell told the Reader this week that the company hadn’t yet seen the results of the soil tests and couldn’t comment. In an email, he also said that workers on the site are not in danger because “manganese levels measured on Bell’s property are a minuscule fraction (literally thousandths of the level) of levels that are likely to lead to manganism.”

The city has issued guidelines for residents to protect themselves from manganese dust. However, advocates said last week that there is insufficient information on the health risks associated with exposure to the heavy metal.

“Chicago’s Department of Public Health has not properly equipped health care providers to talk to their patients about exposure to this neurotoxin,” a coalition of southeast side groups said in a statement Wednesday. “Concerned community members don’t know who to turn to for questions on treatment or the dangers of exposure to manganese.”

City officials have scheduled a public meeting to address residents’ concerns about the results of the soil sampling. The meeting will take place at 11731 S. Avenue O from 5:30 to 7:30 on Thursday, May 10. The Chicago Department of Public Health has also called on the EPA to conduct further soil testing in the area.

A consultant hired by the city to test soil near near the S.H. Bell facility in the Tenth Ward found varying degrees of manganese contamination at nearby homesCredit: Department of Public Health