Grant Investigates 'Toxic Air' in Marietta, Ohio
Published April 2008
UC environmental health researchers have been approved for a $3.1 million federal grant to study the neurological effects of manganese exposure in children living in Marietta, Ohio.
Like many of the most impactful environmental health studies, the impetus for this research started with a group of concerned citizens.
Residents of this small Appalachian community have known for decades that their air quality was poor. Alarmed by the unpleasant odors, taste and visible pollution, a group of local residents—called Neighbors for Clean Air (NCA)—launched its own research into potentially dangerous exposures to metals.
Under the leadership of Marietta resident Caroline Beidler, NCA members logged incidents of unpleasant odors, taste and visible pollution. They had furnace filters and dust swipes from home exteriors tested for manganese, chromium and lead.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), all three metals are being emitted at from Marietta’s Eramet facility, the leading manganese refinery in the United States and Canada.
Manganese is a metal used widely in the production of steel, aluminum alloys, batteries and fertilizers. It is also added to unleaded gasoline to reduce engine knocking during combustion.
It was Beidler’s call to Ohio Citizen Action, a grassroots advocacy organization, that got UC manganese expert Erin Haynes, DrPH, involved in the research.
Haynes formed a team of experts to help the Marietta community understand their environmental exposure to manganese and other metals. Together, Haynes and Beidler conducted a pilot study in 2006 to determine the extent of metal exposure in the community, collecting biological samples—hair and blood—from more than 100 residents living with a 10-mile radius of the refinery. Blood was tested for manganese, lead and chromium; hair samples were tested for manganese.
An additional 32 people took a health survey and postural sway test to help determine whether there is a correlation between levels of metals in the blood and the body’s ability to maintain balance.
“It was very important to involve the community in this research from the very beginning,” said Haynes. “We needed to under the community’s thoughts and perceptions of environmental exposure to metals.”
To do so, the team conducted a community-wide survey of about 270 people and formed a diverse community advisory board to help guide the research questions, study design and how the research is conducted.
Their initial research results proved further study was merited, leading to a $3.1 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to investigate whether children who are exposed to manganese during early childhood will have significant neurodevelopmental deficits compared to those who have low or no exposure to the substance.
Haynes and Beidler will serve as co-investigators of the five-year study, set to begin in April.
Their goal is to determine if there is an association between biological measurements of manganese exposure, neurodevelopmental outcomes and environmental exposure to the metal.
Previous studies have shown that manganese can cross the blood-brain barrier and accumulate in the brain. Research has also shown it can also cross the placenta and concentrate in the brain of a fetus or newborn.
“An infant’s brain may be more susceptible to environmental toxicants than the adult brain because it is far less developed,” explains Haynes. “Human brain development is a dynamic process involving complex pathways of growth, differentiation, pathway direction and apoptosis (cell death)—all of which can be influenced by environmental factors.”
Despite the fact that infants and young children may be at greater risk for manganese neurotoxicity than adults, Haynes says very few studies have evaluated the effect of chronic exposure on cognitive, motor and sensory changes.
During the next five years, Haynes and her team of investigators will collect biological samples—blood, hair, shed teeth and nails—from Marietta children ages 7 to 8 and evaluate neurological development through a series of tests designed to measure cognitive and motor function. They will also perform heavy metals exposure assessments of air and dust metals in each child’s home. The study will be held at the Marietta College Center for Families and Children.
“For 20 years, our community has expressed great concern about industrial emissions to public officials without anyone taking action,” says Beidler, who has lived in Marietta for 34 years.
“We are excited to be making progress,” she says. “This research is long overdue and the results could have a major impact on the Marietta community, as well as national policy.”