Oregon’s invisible health hazard: toxic air pollution

An air study in 2015 revealed a serious toxic air pollution problem in Southeast and North Portland near two manufacturing facilities. Though Oregon’s air may often look crisp and clean, these two neighborhoods aren’t the only ones where toxics pollute the air.

While some of that toxic pollution comes from cars, trucks, trains, and wood stoves, it may also be businesses in your neighborhood polluting the air with toxics including heavy metals and volatile organic compounds like benzene and formaldehyde.

You can look up those permits by zip code. What you’ll find:

  • Oregon has issued more than 2,300 permits allowing facilities like auto body shops, mills, dry cleaners, boilers and manufacturers to release some toxic air pollution.
  • Approximately 880 (40%) of those permits are in the Portland metro area.
  • Together, these facilities legally release hundreds of tons of toxic compounds into the air each year.
  • These air toxics are scientifically linked to cancer and harm to the developing brain.

We know that some of the toxics polluting our air are at levels that are bad for our health. Oregon’s science advisors set “health benchmarks” as an early warning sign. When pollution rises above a benchmark – as it has in many neighborhoods – it’s time to take action to protect public health.

The Oregon Environmental Council believes that Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, Health Authority, local governments, and responsible business owners must act immediately to reduce toxic exposures that are creating unacceptable risks for our health. We must also dedicate time and resources today to protect public health well into the future.

How Oregon is responding

Oregon’s chief health and environmental agencies are still working to answer questions from concerned citizens and elected officials. You can learn more and sign up for email updates on their web sites:

Governor Brown immediately asked for answers from the agencies; here is their response.

The state legislature also held a hearing on the issue, and Neighbors for Clean Air gathered thousands of signatures calling for fixes to the broken regulatory system.

Oregon Environmental Council is also urging Oregon officials to take immediate action and also make long-term improvements.

First step: find and fix the greatest harm

  • The state should act immediately to identify other places where vulnerable people are living in the shadow of a polluter. Air toxics cause the greatest harm in communities where low-income families and people of color have been marginalized as well as near vulnerable people in schools and hospitals.
  • In places where air toxics put health at risk, it’s our state’s responsibility to share information quickly, clearly, and with an understanding of how each community gets its important information.
  • The state should also act immediately to talk to polluting businesses in these priority areas, and work with them to find  ways to immediately reduce risk in their neighborhood, such as installing pollution control technology.

Next step: better protect air tomorrow

Oregon must dedicate the funding, time and resources to make healthy air a priority. But it’s not just about resources: It’s also time for Oregon to update its air toxic control plans and take real action to reduce pollution.

There are better ways for Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality to manage permits, assist businesses, monitor air and enforce the law. Counties and cities can also play a role, establishing a regional agency to protect air.


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