How bad is the air in Portland?

I have been on a journey of discovery into Portland air quality since March 2009. That was when I ran across a national study that showed my daughters’ elementary school to be in the top 2% of schools across the nation with the worst air due to proximity to toxic industrial emissions (USA Today: The Smokestack Effect). To make matters worse, in July 2009, the federal government published its most recent National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) report that showed Oregon to have the 3rd largest population at risk of excess cancer due to exposure to toxic emissions.  My latest stop this week, a website introduced through TEDMED 2009 speaker Bill Davenhall, ERSI Global Marketing Manager, that gives users a way to assess health risks through geography.

By inputing zip codes into the search engine a visitor to the site can get a picture of their place history and the environmental exposures associated with them. I have lived many places in my adult life, and I also threw in a few zip codes from my husband’s side which hails from SE Texas to SW Louisiana (otherwise known as cancer alley).  Finally I threw in the zip code for Marietta OH where a school was closed because of the local industrial emissions. Here are some of what I found:

Milwaukee, WI:  14 chemicals
Baltimore, MD: 4 chemicals
Santa Cruz, CA: 8 chemicals
St. Paul, MN: 21 chemicals
Marietta, OH: 24 chemical
Houston, TX: 7 chemicals
Lake Charles, LA: 10 chemicals

And finally, Portland OR: 82 chemicals

82 chemicals.  Portland’s progressiveness seems to expand beyond bike paths, light rail, and the streetcar.

It has been documented that city living in and of itself is a health risk.  I am a strong believer in our urban growth boundary and even in the theory of “20 min. communities.” But are these pillars of progressive land use planning sustainable in an environment that still allows unfettered capitulation of natural resources by industrial entities?

Portland’s contemporary dilemma is nothing new.  Even in 1913, as the ESCO Corporation was part of the movement to fill in Guild’s Lake, and appropriate the NW expanse along the deep water Willamette River for industrial use, other city leaders were battling to realize the promise of the 1907 million dollar municipal park bond measure, and attempting to save the west hills forest from development.

It is hard to say which more suited the values of the family who built the house in 1904 where my family currently lives on lower Thurman Street.  Their parents concurrently built the house next door and a four plex right behind those.  I suspect they were middle class, workers who were benefitting from the jobs close by.  I also suspect they enjoyed the pristine forests nearby, though had no guarantee they would remain.  I do know that they could have no idea what dangers lurked ahead as industrial activity boomed.  There is very little science today to help us understand how these chemicals effect us, and almost none regarding the synergistic effects of 82 of them.

On the eve of the 2nd Portland Air Toxics Solution Advisory Committee meeting, I think it is time for our Environmental Quality Commission to address the unique problems of Portland’s air pollution by ensuring that the Air Toxics benchmarks are truly protective of public health.  The current benchmarks are incapable of addressing the exposures of those most at risk, like children, and those who live in toxic hotspots, exposed to all 82 toxic chemicals and heavy metals.  You can send a message to the DEQ that specifically asks the EQC to ensure that the Air Toxic Health Benchmarks protect children from short term and long term exposure to toxic pollutants in the environment where they live, play and go to school.

Public Comment closes June 30th on the Air Toxics Benchmark ruling, and there will be a public hearing May 18th.  I urge you to make your voice heard that we expect out regulatory process to be protective of public health.

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