U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer wrote a letter Monday asking officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry for their “immediate assistance” in responding to the discovery of high levels of arsenic and cadmium in the air in Portland and the likelihood that residents have been exposed to hexavalent chromium as well.
“Immediate assessment of the extent of these pollutants and their associated health risks is urgently needed,” they wrote. “There is a concerning lack of data on the localized concentration of these contaminants and the length of time residents may have been exposed.”
The three federal lawmakers also called for the agencies to work with their state and local government counterparts to conduct exposure screenings, perform soil tests, establish a centralized system for tracking health incidents and test results.
The concerns about heavy metal pollution in Portland’s air were triggered by the testing of moss samples collected by the U.S. Forest Service. They showed hot spots for cadmium, arsenic, lead and nickel. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality conducted follow-up air testing that found levels of arsenic that are 159 times above the state benchmark for healthy air and levels of cadmium that are 49 times above the health benchmark.
The pollution detected in those tests has been linked to Bullseye Glass in Southeast Portland, which uses metals to make colored artistic and architectural glass. Bullseye agreed to stop using cadmium, arsenic and chromium in response to the testing. Another artistic glass-maker, Uroboros Glass in North Portland, has agreed to stop using cadmium and chromium until regulators know more about where the emissions came from and how to control them.
Wyden, Merkley and Blumenauer asked officials to deploy a team of public health professionals to Oregon to work with local officials to help track health problems and test results to better understand the health effects associated with exposure to the hazardous pollutants.
The levels detected are high enough to raise the health risk of certain cancers, kidney damage and impaired brain development for people living nearby, according to state health officials.
The lawmakers held a press conference last week in which they reported on their conversations with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about the regulatory loophole that allows colored glass-makers in Portland to emit heavy metals without testing or pollution controls on their furnaces.
They said they want to see the federal government put more energy into addressing the problem and closing the loophole.