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Portland Residents Line Up To Grill Officials About Air Pollution

February 22, 2016

About 200 residents gathered at Harriet Tubman Middle School Thursday for a second community meeting on the recent discovery of heavy metals in the air in Portland.

The meeting was much like the first session last week, with officials from Oregon Health Authority, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Forest Service and Portland Public Schools available to answer questions and hear concerns.

Residents asked repeatedly about the air quality at the city's schools: Is it safe? They wanted to know if the state would be testing people's urine for metals and looking at the community's health impacts of exposure to toxic pollution. Some  asked what other industrial facilities are emitting pollutants nobody knows about.

The district has begun another round of testing in four schools: Lewis Elementary, Boise Elliott, Lane Middle School and Rose City Park. So far, officials say, they haven't found any detectable levels of metals in the indoor air.

Alex Hirsch asked officials what people can do to clear toxins from their bodies.

"There are going to be thousands of people in these neighborhoods," she said. "What can we do with  – I don't know – our diets? Or should we get tested? Then what happens? Do you have a guide for us?"

Health officials told her they are working hard on preparing online guides for physicians and residents. Eating a diverse diet including the good metals –calcium and iron – is important, they said, as is eating vegetables with folate in them such as broccoli and spinach. 

Oregon Health Authority officials said their agency will cover the cost of urine testing for concerned residents and has implemented emergency rule to make cadmium found in urine reportable to the state so officials can collect information about where people have found high cadmium levels in their bodies.

Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Director Dick Pedersen and Oregon Health Authority Director Lynne Saxton responded to many of the questions, assuring residents that his agency is doing additional testing and working on new air pollution rules to address the gaps in existing regulations.

Pedersen called the levels of cadmium and arsenic detected in Southeast Portland "alarming" and "very, very high." He said the federal Clean Air Act the state enforces to regulate toxic pollutants is not enough. Officials have linked the heavy metals to a colored glassmaking facility in Southeast Portland that wasn't required to test its emissions or add pollution controls to the furnaces it uses to make glass using a variety of metals. They are also looking at the link between a second glassmaking company in North Portland.

"We have to fill this gap in Oregon," Pedersen said. "We have to fill this gap of potential emissions of toxic chemicals from industries that aren't covered in a regulatory scheme."

Health officials noted they're more concerned about exposures to cadmium because chromium and arsenic leave the body fairly quickly after exposure, but cadmium is stored in the kidneys for a longer period of time.

Vivian Christensen asked about hot spot for nickel detected in testing of moss that was growing near the metal parts manufacturer Precision Castparts in Southeast Portland. She says she now knows that even if the company is in compliance that doesn't mean it's not emitting unhealthy levels of metal into the air.

"The regulations regarding air pollution in Oregon are so completely lax," she said. "What's allowed to be emitted into neighboring communities is disgraceful."

She also asked why officials didn't know the colored glass facilities were emitting metals and why there isn't a tracking system for all toxic pollution releases.

Oregon Department of Environmental Quality air quality manager David Monro told her no one had emissions estimates for how much of the metals were coming out of the glass plants.

"That knowledge wasn't there," he said. "Not just in Oregon, but nationally for this industry. While they're using these components in the glass furnaces, the levels of emissions aren't known. Even now we haven't gotten the emissions data out of the stack. What we're seeing is concentrations nearby. There's a blind spot in the information that we have and what the industry has."

Pedersen said he knows the answers people are getting from regulators are "totally unsatisfactory," and his agency is working on improving the way the regulations work.

"Based on this data, we know there are challenges and problems," he said. "We're asking the question how do we get the information we need rather than it being unknown, which is another totally unsatisfactory answer."

Two concerned residents wore masks to a community meeting about heavy metals detected in the air in Portland.

Cassandra Profita, OPB