October 17, 2016; Argus Leader

Mental health professionals working with people with mental illness face many challenges—low pay and stringent certification requirements, poor working conditions and high stress. For one mental health outreach clinic, poor working conditions may have included working across the street from a toxic salvage yard.

Fifth Street Connection, a mental health clinic program of Southeastern Behavioral Healthcare, offered therapeutic services as well as a clubhouse atmosphere for clients in their downtown location from the 1980s until the late 2000s. Employees would gather together to smoke outside the building, wondering, “What do you think we’re catching out here?” Several years ago, after Fifth Street closed, the answer was in.

After sketching out their office, they concluded 10 of the 14 people who worked there two decades ago had since developed autoimmune disorders or had children with inflammatory diseases.

It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that there was a causal link between the salvage yard and the mental health employees’ illnesses. However, state and federal officials, as well as an attorney retained by the employees, could not find such a link. When the yard was cleaned up, proper procedures were used to stop dust and contaminated vapor from drifting away from the site. James Harless, vice president of environmental services at Michigan-based engineering consultation group SME, said that if they had not, “the contractors and workers would have been dropping like flies.” In addition, there have been no reports of Fifth Street Connection clients, many of whom were regular visitors and who smoked outside the building, contracting autoimmune or other diseases linked to toxic exposure.

The best guess is that an early soil sample test or tests, performed without appropriate safety measures, may have been the basis for the cluster of illnesses among the workers. But those tests happened over 20 years ago, and the soil was removed from the site to multiple landfills a long time ago. It would be impossible to trace the soil’s current locations and test it again. There might be a link between lead exposure and multiple sclerosis (MS), according to Frederick Miller, chief of the Environmental Autoimmunity Group at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “The bottom line is that more research is needed to address this,” Miller said.

Tracking disease clusters is nothing new, but maintaining national databases of disease clusters is still in its infancy. There is a federally supported database for ALS, for example, but not for MS. The National MS Society has been working to develop its own registry, which will become available in 2017.

Nonprofit organizations serving vulnerable populations often operate from facilities in less desirable locations. What makes those locations less desirable is a legitimate consideration for both nonprofits and their employees if that undesirability may include potential environmental health risks.—Michael Wyland