Hundreds of people crowded into Cleveland High School Tuesday night with questions, concerns and demands for officials addressing Portland’s air pollution.
Recent testing found unhealthy levels of arsenic and cadmium in the air around Southeast 22nd and Powell. The pollution has been linked to a local glass-making facility, which stopped using both cancer-causing metals last week. But residents still have a lot of questions about the health risks they’re facing and what local and state governments are doing to protect them.
At an open house organized by Multnomah County Health Department, neighbors of Bullseye Glass criticized the lack of pollution controls and questioned whether officials handling the situation are doing everything they can to reduce toxins in the air.
Jessica Applegate delivered a list of demands – including the suspension of all operations at Bullseye Glass – on behalf of a neighborhood group.
“I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 18 years and raised two kids here,” she said. “I am alarmed by this to say the least. … It is our government’s job to defend us from threats to our health and safety. We demand that you do your job.”
Applegate and others called for tighter pollution controls and pressed the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to explain why current regulations didn’t prevent the emissions of harmful levels of heavy metals.
DEQ Air Quality Manager David Monro said Bullseye was operating in compliance with its pollution permit from DEQ and that his agency is focusing on collecting data that will help inform the best solution.
“There are no regulations that address this particular situation,” he said. “A lot of people need to be involved in the solution.”
The elevated metals were discovered through a study that sampled moss around Portland as a new method of testing for air pollutants. Based on those results, DEQ conducted additional air testing and 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.
Exposure to elevated levels of arsenic raises the risk of contracting bladder, skin and lung cancers, and can also impair brain development over time. Increased exposure to cadmium can raise the risk of lung cancer and can damage the kidneys. Health officials say the levels detected are high enough to raise the cancer risk for nearby residents.
Monro said DEQ is deploying additional air testing devices and developing a soil sampling plan in response to the moss test results.
Amanda Jarman lives five blocks from the Bullseye Glass facility. After she learned about the test results, she made an appointment to have her hair, blood and urine tested for heavy metals.
“I have to say my first reaction was just absolute shock,” she said. “I had no idea that I was breathing this in. A lot of people are paying for their own private blood and urine tests, hair tests to understand are these metals accumulated in our system. So the question is what do we do then? What is the sound treatment protocol to get those metals out of our systems?”
Oregon Health Authority toxicologist David Farrer told the crowd that his agency isn’t recommending that everyone in the neighborhood get tested for metals.
“But we’re not discouraging it either,” he said.
Farrer said the test results won’t necessarily tell individuals whether a particular contaminant is having a toxic effect on their body.
Ezekiel Martin-Brunkhart said his husband recently died of cancer and asked officials whether they were testing people for contamination. When they told him they hadn’t tested anyone, he volunteered himself.
“Air doesn’t get cancer. Air doesn’t get sick,” he said. “At what point do we start testing bodies?”
Jarman and others expressed concerns about what other toxic materials Bullseye is continuing to emit. They want the facility to cease production until the neighbors can be sure it can operate safely.
Resident Julie Poust says she suspects there are other air pollution problems across the city and the state that officials don’t know about.
“If we caught it here, it’s like where else? What else is going on?” she said. “If they’re meeting their permit requirements and we’ve now serendipitously found toxic levels of these heavy metals, I guarantee we’re not the only ones. It’s happening everywhere and we just don’t know.”
Geoff Donovan of the U.S. Forest Service explained how his agency’s moss testing method was used to flag the areas with elevated heavy metals. He said while moss testing can’t replace air testing, it is a less expensive way to check a lot of locations than installing more air testing equipment. His agency tested 346 moss samples from all over Portland for $20,000 while one air monitoring station can cost more than $100,000.
“I think it’s a great idea for collaboration,” he said. “It shouldn’t be limited to just Portland or just cadmium.”
He said his agency is looking at how moss testing could provide insight into how long people have been exposed to elevated metals in the air.
He said he understood that it’s scary for people to hear only “a partial story” about harmful air pollution without getting all the answers.
“I’m sickened by these things,” he told the crowd. “I haven’t slept well in a month.”
A map released by DEQ this week shows moss testing also revealed a hot spot for cadmium in North Portland near the Fremont Bridge. Another glass-maker near that hot spot has voluntarily stopped using cadmium in its operations.
Officials say they plan to hold another community meeting for North Portland residents.
Meanwhile, Gov. Kate Brown and Portland mayoral candidate Ted Wheeler both released statements of concern over the situation.
Wheeler accused environmental regulators of being “asleep at the switch.”
Brown wrote a letter to the heads of DEQ and OHA asking pointed questions about what went wrong and what policy changes are needed as a result.
“I am very concerned about the safety of area residents,” Brown said in a news release. “I have directed the directors of DEQ and OHA to provide me a detailed account of their agency’s response and indicate specific next steps to restoring safe air quality.”