Portland’s air pollution problem was brought to our attention in January 2016, when the Portland Mercury broke a story, exposing elevated cadmium and arsenic in several areas of our city. Days later, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the regulatory body responsible for air safety, announced their data indicated a monthly average of 49 times the state’s established air-safety benchmark level for cadmium and 159 times the benchmark for the arsenic. Cadmium and arsenic are both known carcinogens, connected with serious health effects, like cancer, respiratory problems, and organ damage.
Authorities linked elevated levels of cadmium in the North Portland area, to emissions from Uroboros Glass (it is unclear when Uroboros last used arsenic in it processes). Elevated levels of cadmium and arsenic in Southeast Portland, were linked to emissions and Bullseye Glass Factory. Following this reporting, Bullseye and Uroboros voluntarily suspended use of the chemicals related to the heavy metal air pollution findings.
Uroboros Glass, established in 1973, creates craft-art glass. The factory is located in Eliot at 2139 N Kerby Avenue. About 3,400 people live within half a mile of the glass factory. Harriet Tubman Middle School sits on the other side of I-5, so close to Uroboros that the factory is visible from the school.
The science behind what we know
We can thank the U.S. Forest Service’s moss study, which discovered the toxics near the art glass factories, Uroboros and Bullseye. This study is first of its kind, in the world to look at moss samples to measure contaminants in the air. Initial results were received by DEQ in May 2015. DEQ analyzed results, which revealed elevated concentrations near the glass factories and prompted 24-hour air monitoring of Bullseye in October 2015. Quality assurance was completed in January 2016.
Upon further investigation, it has been found that the genesis of environmental regulators’ concern about our air quality, actually comes years before the infamous moss study. As early as 2005, levels of pollutants in Portland were found above benchmarks. In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) installed an air monitor at Harriet Tubman School, and found cadmium above Oregon’s air-safety benchmark levels. In 2011, an air monitoring project was conducted as follow-up, but the 2009 findings did not reappear. Regulators reasoned that funding for the 2011 project was limited, and that the study was too short and temporary, noting that wind could have impacted results.
No protection against harmful emissions
One of the most unsettling facts, is that the art glass companies were operating in compliance with the law. Uroboros was not required to have a permit, and Bullseye was operating within its permit. Existing regulations have been aimed at larger facilities, like those that produce beer bottles. Despite having state air-safety benchmarks, there have been no direct regulatory requirements associated with benchmarks, such as testing, monitoring, and emissions controls. That means that glass factories, for decades, did not operate baghouses, which are devices that help to filter toxic emissions.
We live in a state that passed the nation’s first bottle bill. Oregon is known for its public beaches. Portland has a plastic-bag ban. So, what is going on with our air? Air pollution has been more, or less “legal”. There has been a failure of oversight, regulation, and no transparency. We are now aware of inadequate state and federal regulation, limited funding for air monitoring, lack of legislative direction, and poor leadership within DEQ, just to name a handful of the problems we have been forced to quickly digest.
State regulators respond to air pollution
The situation is evolving. DEQ, the Oregon Health Authority, and Multnomah County Health Department have partnered to respond and are sharing information with the public on saferairoregon.gov. DEQ has released temporary rules to bring glass factories under regulation, including prohibition of the use of certain heavy metals until baghouses (filters) are in use. Air and soil monitoring is ongoing, “with limited resources”. This crisis has brought greater scrutiny around companies like American Petroleum on Hayden Island and Precision Castparts in Southeast Portland. In April, a list of over 300 permitted facilities that are authorized to use heavy metals in operations was released in order to begin prioritizing inspections. This is list is the first of its kind in Oregon. DEQ does not know which of the facilities emit heavy metals, or how much.
The 2016 Legislature designated $2.5 million for air monitoring in light of the crisis. “Cleaner Air Oregon” is being rolled out statewide, aimed at regulatory overhaul. The program plans to use “human-health based standards” in regulating air quality. This means our state will set limits on air emissions that are based on human health risks, define exposure levels that are safe, and create standards that cover a wide range of facilities. There will be opportunities to participate in the public input process with final rules being developed by December 2017.
Exposure to heavy metals and the risks to human health
The Oregon Health Authority will be conducting Public Health Assessments to evaluate long-term cancer and health risks. Preliminary information was collected using Oregon’s State Cancer Registry and census data. The results looked at census tracts near Uroboros between 1999-2013, and found that rates of lung and bladder cancer were generally consistent with expected rates, but for the years 1999-2003, there was a small, statistically significant increase in the rate of bladder cancer in one census tract. Authorities state that this merits more environmental assessments and that data cannot be used to infer causality between individual cases of cancer and an environmental source. That being said, Uroboros has been open since 1973, and the exodus of many Portland residents from Eliot and other North Portland neighborhoods over the years, due to gentrification, makes determining impacts complicated. This forces us to face the realities of environmental racism and the disproportionate impact on low income people. We need more analysis, badly.
You can talk to you doctor about urine testing for cadmium if you think you may have been effected. The Oregon Health Authority does not recommend testing for everyone at this time. If you currently live, work, or go to school within a half mile from Uroboros, you can call 971-673-3308 to determine if you qualify for free testing. The Oregon Health Plan will cover urine cadmium testing for members who live in the high-risk areas. Most private insurance will cover the cost of cadmium testing for people who live near Uroboros.
If you are concerned about your exposure, you can speak with an attorney. Contact Dan Matthew Preusch or Dan Mensher at Keller Rohrback Law Office. Phone: 800.776.6044 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are interested in sharing stories about air pollution in your neighborhood, or have questions, please contact Zena Rockowitz at Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods. Phone: 503.388.9030, Email: email@example.com
By Zena Rockowitz