Timber Jim Calls for Diesel Cleanup

Guest Blog by Jim Serrill

Screen Shot 2016-07-19 at 6.58.06 AMWorking as a lumberjack for nearly 40 years, I used tools with diesel engines for a good part of my career. Diesel engines are great at getting hard work done. I’ve spent my career working with chainsaws, woodchippers and other logging equipment. I remember cutting down trees, and you couldn’t help but breathe in chainsaw exhaust. By the end of the day I would feel like I had a cold, and my sinuses were swollen and inflamed. But I always considered that to be part of the job.

One year, I went in for my annual physical and received word that my PSA levels were elevated. I was sent to an urologist to follow-up. It was there that I first heard the words “prostate cancer.” There are parts of surviving cancer that no one wants to talk about, but these are the realities of what happens. When I needed radiation, my world got very small. I could not continue the duties of my labor-intensive job and had to retire. And after 30 years as mascot for the Portland Timbers, the role I created in 1978, I had to stop being “Timber Jim.”

So why did this happen? Is it because I worked with woodchippers and chainsaws, or was it a bad luck of the draw? After I was diagnosed I began looking into diesel exposure, and realized that there’s a higher cancer incidence rate for those exposed to diesel exhaust, including firemen, dockworkers, people in the shipping industry, and railroad workers. Even in my own work group, there were ten guys diagnosed with different types of cancer. I encouraged my partner on my work truck to get tested, and he found out that he had the same type of cancer as me; he ended up being diagnosed at a later stage than I was.

There is no “smoking gun” for a cancer cell, so it’s still hard to make the case for an exact cause. And I don’t take issue with diesel engines themselves; but I have issues with diesel exhaust that makes people sick and companies not taking responsibility to make their machines safe. We used to not know about the risk for a long time, but now that we do, companies have an obligation to make equipment safer.

During my career I never paid much attention to warning labels; I always assumed the machines I was being given to use were safe. But one day, when I was getting ready to retire because of cancer treatment, I read the warning label on the woodchipper I was using. It read: “This machine is known to cause cancer and reproductive harm in the state of California.” I did some investigating and realized that California had strengthened their diesel laws. But Oregon has not.

I could spend my days feeling angry with all the ways life has turned out differently than I’d planned. But instead, I focus on what I can do instead of what I can’t. I share my story with others in the hopes that it will help others and inspire change. I help run a community garden and we donate the food we grow to a local food pantry. I am headed to Africa to teach a Masai village how to rebuild soil, compost and plant community gardens. A lot of people might be bitter or angry. But I’m not; I’m alive.

Jim Serrill served as the original mascot for the Portland Timbers; he retired in 2008. Jim now volunteers his time with organizations all over the region. Check out his Tedx Talk “Anger is a Fuel For Love.”

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