Air Pollution Worries Parents

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Dick Wittberg knows that each year factories rain hundreds of thousands of pounds of manganese dust over his hometown of Marietta, Ohio. He also knows that manganese is a heavy metal that can harm the brain and nervous system.

What worries Wittberg, a biologist who heads the mid-Ohio Valley Health Department, is what he doesn't know and can't find out: How all that toxic pollution is affecting the lives and health of children in his community.

Wittberg has been pressing for a full-blown government study of the manganese pollution's health impact since he took part in a pilot study in the late 1990s that compared Marietta children to 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."

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 after enduring 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 Lakes 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.

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., has 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 from 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."