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Oregon Gov. Kate Brown says current federal and state regulatory programs are “clearly inadequate to assure the public that their health is being protected.”
After air quality research found high levels of potentially toxic substances near glassmaking facilities in Portland, Oregon, environmental officials in the Beaver State are carrying out additional tests of soil and air in the city, while the state’s public health authority is preparing to receive urine sample data from people who might have been exposed to the pollutants.
In letters delivered on Sunday and Monday to Gov. Kate Brown, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality and the Oregon Health Authority, outlined those and other steps they are taking to address the air quality concerns. In an inquiry Brown submitted to the agencies last Tuesday, she pressed for more details regarding their response efforts, and asked for additional information about when subpar air quality samples first surfaced.
The Department of Environmental Quality and the Health Authority jointly announced on Feb. 3 that preliminary air quality monitoring data collected near Southeast 22nd Avenue and Powell Boulevard in Southeast Portland showed high amounts of cadmium and arsenic.
A glass manufacturer in that part of the city, Bullseye Glass Co., has since voluntarily suspended its use of arsenic and cadmium, as well as chromium in its production process, the governor’s office said on Monday. Bullseye describes itself as a small company that produces colored glass for art and architecture. Another glass producer in North Portland, Uroboros Glass, has agreed to stop using cadmium and chromium and does not use arsenic.
“These steps address the immediate concerns to public health in terms of air quality,” Brown said in a statement Monday, after noting that the companies had stopped using the materials.
Referring to air quality issues, she added: “I am establishing an open, science-based effort to begin to restore confidence in this critical area of government.”
Breathing air with very high levels cadmium can severely damage a person’s lungs, while inhaling lower amounts over years of time can cause kidney problems, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The agency also notes that some studies have found lung cancer among workers exposed to air containing the metal.
Prolonged exposure to airborne arsenic can lead to circulatory and nervous disorders, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says. And there are studies that suggest arsenic can interfere with fetal development and increase lung cancer risks.
According to the Department of Environmental Quality, the air quality benchmarks for cadmium and arsenic that were found to have been surpassed in recent samples are more akin to seeing a road sign that says a bridge is out up ahead, as opposed to driving off an overpass.
“The exceedance is a warning sign,” an agency fact sheet published last Thursday said.
While that may be so, hundreds of people turned out for a community meeting with government officials last week to ask questions about, and voice misgivings over, the air quality research results and the state response to the findings.
Department of Environmental Quality maps of estimated cadmium concentrations near the Bullseye Glass factory show possible elevated cancer risks in areas where a daycare center, a high school and an elementary school are located. But those elevated risks assume that a person is exposed to the air in those places 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for 70 years. The agency also emphasized that the estimates featured on the maps are not exact and rely on limited data.
The Department of Environmental Quality’s response to the governor, sent Sunday, said the agency asked the U.S. Forest Service to include cadmium and arsenic in a study looking at moss samples, in an effort to gather more information about Portland’s air quality.
Between 2013 and August 2015, the Forest Service collected and analyzed moss and soil samples in the city as a part of this study.
It was June of last year, a timeline the Department of Environmental Quality sent to the governor says, that the state agency identified glass manufacturing facilities as potential sources of cadmium and arsenic. A map overlay of moss contamination and glass facilities, produced that same month, showed a correlation between cadmium hot spots and areas near Bullseye Glass and Uroboros Glass, according to the department.
In the months that followed, the agency planned and conducted air monitoring and sampling in Southeast Portland. Samples were sent last fall for further analysis to a lab at the Desert Research Institute, which is affiliated with the Nevada System of Higher Education.
A Department of Environmental Quality lab received analytical data from the institute on Jan. 15 and began reviewing it at that time. The department says it determined on Jan. 20 that cadmium and arsenic concentrations were above benchmark levels.
“This information was cause for immediate concern,” the agency’s director Dick Pedersen said in the letter to the governor.
In the final days of January and early February, officials from Department of Environmental Quality discussed with state Health Authority staff how to proceed, visited neighborhoods near Bullseye Glass, planned outreach efforts, and worked to finalize data and other information for a public announcement, according to Pedersen’s letter. The Department of Environmental Quality also carried out an unannounced inspection of Bullseye Glass on Feb. 1.
Two days later, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Health Authority issued the joint announcement about the elevated arsenic and cadmium levels.
In southeast Portland last Friday, the department deployed air sampling equipment and began taking soil samples. Similar efforts are planned for northern parts of the city later this week.
Collecting data from the air and soil tests in southeast Portland, and analyzing it, is expected to take about four weeks, Pedersen’s response to Brown said.
The Health Authority’s director, Lynne Saxton, said in a letter she sent the governor on Monday that the most accurate way for people to assess their exposure to cadmium and arsenic is through urine tests. The authority is preparing to receive urine sample data from people who have taken these tests voluntarily, Saxton wrote. That information will guide whether more systematic testing is needed. If it is, she added, “additional staffing and resources would be required.”
She also said the Oregon State Cancer Registry in the state’s Public Health Division is analyzing data on cancers associated with arsenic and cadmium exposure, in areas that the maps from the Department of Environmental Quality have identified as hotspots.
Additionally, officials from both agencies plan to participate in public meetings in Portland, and have set up an “incident command structure” that includes a joint information center for coordinating activities, such as public health assessments and outreach.
Saxton noted that the emission of toxic metals in urban areas remains allowable under current federal and state rules, and that hazardous pollutants commonly found in low concentrations, including cadmium and arsenic, are not regulated under the federal Clean Air Act.
In her statement on Monday, Brown said that, “current federal and state regulatory programs are clearly inadequate to assure the public that their health is being protected.”
The governor said she was asking for assistance from the federal government, other states, research institutions, and the public to develop a more comprehensive approach to tackling air quality issues. As part of that effort, Brown has requested that the Department of Environmental Quality inventory other facilities where there could be significant risks from toxic emissions.
“The events of the past two weeks,” the governor said, “have made it clear that there is a larger and broader issue regarding the emission of air toxics.”
Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.
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