Cheap Seats 2017
Dust in the Wind - 01/03
By Rich Trzupek
It is somewhat unfair to pick on one reporter, when I am morally certain that many others have written similar stuff, but the story that landed in my inbox was penned by one Alex Ruppenthal, so it is Alex whom we will critique.
The story, dated December 22, 2017 and published at chicagotonight.wttw.com involves my old Southeast Side stomping grounds, so it is particularly near and dear to my heart. It involves all of the pieces that are required when covering environmental issues in this day and age: a supposedly heartless industrial villain, an innocent populace being placed in grave danger, and a cadre of do-gooders riding to the rescue of the poor, ignorant villagers.
The villain is Watco Companies, LLC. In his lead, Alex tells us that Watco “handles toxic metals”. Ugh. As a chemist, the misuse of the word toxic by journalists makes me cringe on a daily basis. Are there non-toxic metals? No, there are safe doses and unsafe doses of everything, metals and non-metals. Toxicity is about dose – period.
Moving on, we are told the problem is that the company has “dust problems” and that “29 percent of the 650,000 tons of steel alloy and associated material contain manganese.” Double ugh. You know what else contains manganese? Just about every ton of steel that the hundreds of plants in and around Chicago makes, uses, slits, saws, grinds or otherwise handle.
Alex’s car contains manganese. Alex himself contains manganese. If he didn’t, which is to say if he suffered from manganese deficiency, he would be suffering from a number of medical problems. Too little manganese is just as bad for you as too much.
So what is too much exposure? That’s something that depends on the exposure pathway. In this case the story is about inhalation exposure, so we’ll stick to that. If you happen to work at one of the gagillion plants that handle steel, your employer is obliged to ensure you are not exposed to manganese in concentrations of 5 milligrams per cubic meter of air, which is the OSHA limit.
EPA reasonably says that OSHA limits shouldn’t be used in the case of the general populace, so they maintain a database called the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) where they assign their own risk assessments on a variety of elements and compounds. Many of these assessments are based on the Lowest Observed Adverse Effect Level (LOAEL).
The agency arrives at the LOAEL by scouring the globe for studies regarding the health effect of each material and picking the lowest number they can find. That doesn’t mean the number is correct, it just means it the lowest. Then, to further reduce that number, they assign an uncertainty factor to further reduce it and come up with what they call their “Reference Concentration”.
In the case of manganese, the LOAEL was 0.05 milligrams per cubic meter. They then applied an uncertainty factor of 1,000 to come up with the manganese reference concentration of 0.00005 mg per cubic meter. So, if you’re still with me, OSHA says that you are perfectly safe working in a factory where you can be exposed to 100,000 times more manganese in the air than you EPA says is safe once you head home.
Or does it? The reference concentration is not, as journalists typically use it, the concentration of an element or compound above which the EPA claims the public is put at risk. It is rather the concentration below which the EPA says – after applying the layers of safety factors described above – they are confident in saying nobody is at risk, not even your 98 year-old grandmother who suffers from asthma and emphysema.
According to Ruppenthal, inspectors saw dust (dust at an industrial facility – go figure) and since an EPA study found manganese concentrations of 0.000108 mg per cubic meter nearby when a previous owner operated the site, Watco is being forced to install air monitors in order to protect the fragile health of those living in my old neighborhood.
Naturally it’s well-heeled environmental organizations like NRDC and Northwestern Priztker Law School’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic that are behind this silliness. They are experts at whipping the public into a frenzy about risks so tiny as to be practically invisible and, unfortunately, the modern-day journalist almost always swallows their stories whole.