What you can’t see in our air

When Bullseye Glass in SE Portland learned that they might be responsible for high levels of cadmium and arsenic in the air (see details), they suspended their use of these heavy metals.  It does little to ease the minds of neighbors who were unwittingly exposed. The alarm should continue to sound in other neighborhoods: our air isn’t always as clean as it may look.

We already know from models that Portland has problems with wood smoke, diesel exhaust and certain industrial pollution. But these models don’t always reflect what you may encounter while walking through your neighborhood today. Why? Because there aren’t many monitors, they don’t provide information quickly, and the laws aren’t working well to protect people from risk.

Oregon Department of Environmental Quality takes regular measurements across the state on the pollutants that create soot and smog. But these monitors don’t pick up the 52 “air toxics” that can raise the risk of cancer, birth defects and other health problems. For air toxics, the state has only two permanent stations in the state and one that can be moved. Measuring these air toxics is complicated, expensive—and not well supported by federal law or state budgets.

As for polluters, the biggest ones are regulated under federal law for the chemicals released from their smokestacks. But the federal system doesn’t regulate small-scale polluters or the total amount of air toxics around us. In other words, an industry might be in full compliance with the law, but the air may still be raising health risks.

Oregon sets a benchmarks for air toxics. When an air toxic is at levels above the benchmark, public health is at risk. DEQ uses models to understand where the levels of toxics are creating health risks, so that they can focus clean-up efforts. But most of these clean-up actions are voluntary, due to lax federal and state regulation.

So where does that leave the average Oregonian? Downwind of a lot of uncertainty.

The air toxics discovered recently in SE Portland were not a result of routine monitoring or modeling. Instead, it was a US Forest Service study of moss that raised concerns to DEQ, who then followed up with air monitoring in fall of 2015.

That’s why more groups outside of government are taking air quality monitoring into their own hands. DEQ offers Community Air Monitoring advice to communities about how to get the best data by thinking carefully about where to put monitors and how to capture toxic air pollutants.

Inspired by groups like Neighbors for Clean Air, Oregon Environmental Council is exploring ways we might encourage more community involvement in understanding the air we breathe and taking action to reduce harm. We’re also working on ways to promote green chemistry, so that industries are using safer chemicals in the first place.

You can take personal actions today to help keep air clean in your home and neighborhood. See more.

 

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