Air | Ecotrope

Mapping Portland’s Everyday Air Toxics

Ecotrope | May 25, 2012 8:48 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:31 p.m.

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Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has compiled maps of where certain air toxics are the most concentrated in the Portland metropolitan area. This map shows risk from on-road vehicle emissions.

Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has compiled maps of where certain air toxics are the most concentrated in the Portland metropolitan area. This map shows risk from on-road vehicle emissions.

Will Portland’s air be safe to breathe in 2017?

Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has taken a close look at 19 air toxics in the Portland metro area and projected what their levels will be – and where – by 2017.

Working with the Portland Air Toxics Solutions Advisory Committee, the agency put out a report last month illustrating which toxics are expected to exceed a set of agreed-upon health benchmarks. Air toxics can raise the risk of cancer and other diseases at higher concentrations, though they’re not regulated like other air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.

The DEQ report concluded that 15 air pollutants will exceed healthy levels – throughout the metropolitan area, in most cases – by 2017. It found higher levels of air toxics near low-income and minority communities.

It concluded the eight riskiest pollutants are 1,3-Butadiene, benzene, diesel particulate, 15 polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, naphthalene, cadmium, acrolein and formaldehyde.

And the culprits? Mostly cars, trucks, and wood stoves.

“So much of the pollution is from everyday activities,” said Marcia Danab, communications and outreach coordinator for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. “When you look at the maps, you see areas that have higher concentrations are along the major roadways: It’s cars and trucks, diesel trucks, construction equipment powered by diesel or gas, and it’s wood smoke.”

The worst contributors to air toxics in the Portland area? The cars and trucks we drive every day.

The worst contributors to air toxics in the Portland area? The cars and trucks we drive every day.

Metals such as manganese, nickel and cadmium from specific industries are also part of the mix, she said, but they’re “a small section of the whole pie.”

DEQ is holding three meetings next week to discuss the report and recommended ways to reduce air toxics to levels that won’t increase the cancer risk for people breathing the air in Portland.

The advisory committee recommended five areas where these toxic pollutants can be reduced: residential wood stoves, light-duty and heavy-duty vehicles, construction and non-road equipment and industrial metals facilities.

Vehicle inspections are one check on toxic emissions from cars and trucks. But Danab said air toxics can also be reduced by people simply driving less, using less toxic paint, and switching to non-diesel engines.

“We’re working with companies that use diesel trucks,” she said. “and what incentive can we offer to make it more convenient to switch to non-diesel engines because those engines last so long.”

To do the modeling, DEQ combined data from five air monitoring stations with Metro’s data on vehicle use and Census data on who lives where.

“This is really kind of ground-breaking,” said Danab. “Our approach is unique in the country because there are no standards for air toxics like there are for ozone and lead and what the Clean Air Act calls criteria pollutants. Those have set standards.”

The benchmarks for reducing air toxics are really just goals, Danab explained, because there aren’t any laws requiring tighter regulations of air toxics.

“We have environmental laws that we’re carrying out, and it’s hard for us to go beyond those laws,” she said. “DEQ does what it can but we can only go so far. We will need community partners and also individuals to become aware and more savvy. Just like people have gotten behind reducing their carbon footprint. This is a community health challenge.”

Click here for more maps of air toxics in the Portland area.

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