The handful of schools that were tested for heavy metals recently came up clear. But worry over the lack of regular air monitoring around public schools came to a head this week, even as government leaders tried to reassure parents.
Hundreds of parents packed a meeting this week at the Harriet Tubman school auditorium in North Portland.
Tubman was one of the sites exposed to heavy metal air pollution earlier this year. Arsenic, cadmium and chromium can pose serious health risks, including cancer and bone and organ damage.
The auditorium’s front row included a long-time school activist who goes by just “Byrd.” She says her niece and nephew are at Tubman for the next year and a half, as Oregon’s largest school district erects a new Faubion K-8 building. Byrd addressed state officials wearing a white surgical mask.
“Elevated levels of cadmium and other pollutants were detected in this community several years prior to last May,” she said. “Alarming rates of cadmium in particular were detected in this area this past May.
“My question: Why was this site identified as a temporary location spot for Faubion students? So many questions remain unanswered. …”
The crowd at Tubman applauded.
Byrd was referring to a 2011 study from the Environmental Protection Agency. When she said “last May,” she’s talking about when the Forest Service first shared findings of elevated cadmium levels in moss with the state.
Byrd’s question also highlights the bureaucratic gaps in how Portland’s air pollution is tracked and regulated. Oregon Health Authority director Lynn Saxton was the first official to respond to Byrd’s question. Her answer: “I can’t speak for the Portland school board or the Portland school district.”
Portland school board member Paul Anthony answered Byrd by praising the school’s air filters.
“The H-VAC system is really something. It’s very, very good. I don’t believe there’s any other facility where we could be putting the students from Faubion,” Anthony told the crowd.
Some in the audience shouted back at Anthony, asking about the outside air that kids breathe during recess. State officials responded, saying they intend to expand air and soil monitoring - and write new, stronger air quality rules. Activists remain skeptical.
The biggest reason that the air has tested clear at Tubman is likely that public outcry forced glass manufacturers to stop emitting the heavy metals, which they use to add color to glass, among other manufacturing techniques.
Air testing at schools is not required by law and tends to be spotty. Tubman is an exception — there’s information dating back to 2011 on the campus because it was part of a national, 63-school study by the EPA in 2011.
Portland Public Schools’ facilities senior director David Hobbs says his staff tests air quality at campuses when they’re alerted to a problem.
“We generally will sample air quality when we have a specific issue that comes up, like the one that we currently have with cadmium and arsenic,” Hobbs said. “Or, if we have a leak in one of our buildings, that would be another case where we would go in and sample the air.”
So the district tests for mold, if there’s a leak in the roof - or in this case, after the Forest Service tells the state about heavy metals found in moss.
But what about problems that aren’t as obvious?
“We’re not set up, we’re not funded to be testing 365, 24/7, that’s just not feasible for us to do - at any of our sites,” Hobbs said. “But this site has no concerns based on the results we’ve gotten back, and we feel it’s very safe for our kids to be here.”
Portland Public Schools is testing the air at four more schools - two in Southeast Portland, one in North Portland and one in Northeast Portland. They’re responding to parents who saw potential “hot spots” on a map of the city’s air pollution. Those results will come back next week.
School leaders are already hearing the air pollution problems entering into a simmering debate around school boundaries. Among the school buildings possibly slated to receive more students in the years to come - Tubman, which could become a permanent site for a middle school.