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Report: Alternative cover for gravel roads poses health risk

January 9, 2019

MUSCATINE, Iowa (AP) — Dust from waste material used to cover gravel roads in Iowa could be hurting the health of children and adults who are exposed, according to a report from a state toxicologist.

Toddlers and developmentally disabled children would only need to play near the slag dust — which include high levels of manganese — in Muscatine County for a few days a year to suffer, Iowa Public Health Department toxicologist Stuart Schmitz wrote in his report.

“I would say that any child playing or living very close to areas where slag is deposited could reasonably be expected to experience adverse health impacts,” Schmitz said.

County Supervisor Nathan Mather said at a board meeting Monday that “this is the first time anybody in an official capacity has told us there’s a concern.” He said the county hasn’t used slag on roads since June, but he plans to introduce a motion next week that would discontinue the material’s use.

Slag is a byproduct of steel manufacturing, and contains metals at levels that are harmful to infants and toddlers but also for people up to 18 years old, the report said.

Children exposed to high levels of manganese could experience learning disabilities and adverse behavioral changes, according to a U.S. Department of Health report.

Slag dust is also dangerous for adults who are exposed to levels nearly twice what’s considered safe, though adults would have to work “an entire workday, most days of the year,” to be harmed, the report said.

People exposed to high manganese levels can experience mild neurological damage that could lead to confusion, balance issues and coordination problems, Schmitz said. The effects would be temporary and likely wear off once a person is no longer exposed.

Slag is cheaper than gravel and has saved the county an estimated $1 million, according to officials. The county had previously relied on two decade-old state reports to show that the material was safe.

Edward Askew, a chemist who is a member of the local opposition group, is concerned that the health issues could be worse than the report illustrates. He urged county supervisors to continue researching the type of slag used to learn if other hazardous materials are present, such as cadmium, arsenic or mercury.

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