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The relationship between manganese and cancer mortality rates
June 26, 10:04 PM
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The metal manganese, like many other substances, is present in the air we breathe and in the water we drink. On the whole, that’s a good thing – it’s an essential nutrient for the human body.

But if we get too much, bad things can happen; exposure to high levels of manganese can affect the nervous and reproductive systems, and it’s one of the toxics being scrutinized in the EPA’s study of air around schools.

It doesn’t qualify as a carcinogen, though, with the EPA saying there’s not enough evidence to show it causes cancer.

But there’s new evidence this month, in the form of research published in Biological Trace Element Research.

The article, Environmental Manganese and Cancer Mortality Rates by County in North Carolina: An Ecological Study, by John G. Spangler and Jeffrey C. Reid, shows an apparent relationship between cancer deaths and concentrations of manganese in air and water.

What Spangler and Reid’s research shows is that as low levels of manganese in the air increase – but remain relatively low – a population’s (in this case, people in North Carolina) cancer mortality rate decreases. And as moderate levels of manganese in groundwater increase, a population’s cancer mortality rate increases.

Specifically, N.C. residents who live in counties with the highest concentration of manganese in the air (0.01510μg/m3) have an 8% lower chance of dying from cancer than those who live in counties with the lowest concentration of manganese in the air (0.00001μg/m3), while N.C. residents who live in counties with the highest concentration of manganese in the groundwater (346μg/l) have a 21% higher chance of dying from cancer than those who live in counties with the lowest concentration of manganese in the groundwater (3μg/l). Note how much higher the manganese concentration in water is than in air.

Hopefully I made that simple enough to follow; these number-heavy studies make my head spin. But basically, it appears to boil down to this: Breathing in low levels of manganese helps fight off cancer (this confirms what science already understood, that is, that manganese is good for us), while ingesting elevated levels of manganese raises the risk of cancer.

I spoke with one of the authors – Dr. John Spangler, Professor of Family Medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine – to get some insight. Dr. Spangler brought his article to my attention after reading my earlier Examiner.com posts.

“What makes this research important, to me,” Spangler explained, “is that it indicates there is a relationship in the air and water with manganese: in smaller amounts it’s helpful in the air because it’s necessary; a little in the environment is healthy. But higher rates may be dangerous.”

“The most profound thing is the 48% increase in certain kinds of cancer deaths that can occur – that’s pretty astounding.”

And what makes this more relevant than ever is that manganese is used as a gasoline additive which can easily be released into the environment. This may help explain the groundwater concentration numbers.

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