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Health | Communities | Air | Environment | Portland's Toxic Air Problem

Portland Heavy Metals Emissions Linked To Glass Facility


Aerial view of Bullseye Glass in southeast Portland. State regulators say high levels of cadmium and arsenic likely came from the factory, which makes colored glass for artists.

Aerial view of Bullseye Glass in southeast Portland. State regulators say high levels of cadmium and arsenic likely came from the factory, which makes colored glass for artists.

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A glass facility in Southeast Portland has suspended the use of cadmium and arsenic in its operations after testing found unhealthy levels of those metals in the air nearby.

On Wednesday, state health and environmental officials warned of unhealthy levels of both metals detected in the air around Southeast 22nd and Southeast Powell Boulevard in Portland. Cadmium and arsenic are used in the production of colored glass, and DEQ officials say they’ve determined the elevated concentrations of metals are linked to the glass facility. 

The discovery came out of a study Oregon DEQ was conducting with the U.S. Forest Service on the correlation between metals found in the air and metals found in moss. Based on the results of the moss study, which showed areas with high levels of cadmium and arsenic, officials set up an air monitoring station near the Bullseye Glass site in Southeast Portland. Results of the study were first reported by the Portland Mercury.

In a news release sent Thursday, Bullseye Glass said it is in full compliance with its air permit through the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, but has hired an environmental consulting firm to help conduct further testing and monitoring.

“While the DEQ has not required any action on our part, we decided to take action on our own,” the news release said. “As of yesterday we suspended the use of cadmium and arsenic. The owners and employees of Bullseye Glass care about the environment and our neighborhood and take this matter seriously.”

According to Oregon Health Authority toxicologist David Farrer, the testing detected levels of cadmium that are about 50 times the concentration that would normally be found in ambient air, and about 150 times the normal levels of arsenic.

“The numbers we saw were concerning,” Farrer said. “It is in the range that increases risk of cancer. The health risks of arsenic and cadmium depend on how much and how long people are exposed for. We’re glad emissions have stopped.”

Exposure to elevated levels of arsenic raises the risk of contracting bladder, skin and lung cancers, and can also impair brain development over time, he said. Increased exposure to cadmium can raise the risk of lung cancer and can damage the kidneys.

The levels detected raise the cancer risk from one cancer case in a million people to one in 10,000 people, Farrer said.

“Which is still low, but definitely higher than we think is acceptable,” he said.

It’s not clear yet how long people were exposed to those levels. The testing only lasted a month.

“The risk is increased the more you’re exposed.” he said. “We don’t know whether this 30-day average is representative of what happens all the time. It could have been high or low compared to other times of the year.”

Sarah Armitage, an air toxics specialist with Oregon DEQ, said her agency linked the Bullseye Glass facility to the emissions through the results of the moss study and the follow-up air monitoring. But the company is following all the required procedures for controlling its emissions, so it’s unclear why the facility would be emitting unhealthy levels of heavy metals.

The company is required to use a filtering system called a “baghouse” to capture small particles and keep them from leaving the facility, Armitage said.

“What we’re now trying to understand is why the standard that applied to them did not address the metals coming out of their heated process,” she said.

Armitage said her agency the results of the moss study revealed which parts of the city had higher metals detections in moss. Officials overlaid those results with the locations of facilities that use metals, and then selected the Southeast Portland location for additional air testing. The tests were conducted in October, but the results didn’t come in until the end of January.

“They were much higher levels than anything we ever got from our air toxics monitors,” she said. “Once we got the results, we immediately teamed up with health, county and state officials. We’re all trying to understand what this means for public health.”

Armitage said the findings could mean that federal standards for controlling metals emissions at certain glass facilities aren’t working properly. Neither the company nor state environmental regulators knew that Bullseye Glass could be emitting excess metals.

“We didn’t know, and they didn’t know,” she said. “It looks like this is new information, that people were not aware of these emissions. On one hand, it’s bad news because of the potential for harm. On the other hand, it’s good news we found out. We were able to track it down, though it did take awhile.”

Officials are developing a map of the area exposed to higher metals concentrations and investigating whether the one month of air testing is representative of normal operations at the glass facility. They’re also looking at the state cancer registry to see if they can tell whether there is a higher number of certain cancers than would be statistically expected.

The advocacy group Neighbors for Clean Air has suggested the emissions are linked to a possible cancer cluster in Southeast Portland. Farrer said it is difficult to prove a cancer cluster in such a small geographic area.

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