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THE AIR WE BREATHE: Dangerous contaminants found hovering over the city


Studies find much of Portland's air worse than rest of nation

-MAP BY PAUL KOBERSTEIN - PORTLAND IS FUMING: Dangerous levels of carcinogenic heavy metals and chemical compounds contaminate the air in practically every neighborhood in Portland. This map, based on the National Air Toxics Assessment released in December by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, shows estimated cancer risk from air toxics in each of Portland's census tracts. More than 670,000 Portlanders live in areas with air that are among the 40 percent most toxic in the United States based on cancer risk, according to the EPA's database. The risk is higher near downtown, freeways and certain industrial sites. 
Source: Environmental Protection Agency, National Air Toxic Assessment, December 2015, based on 2011 air sampling
On a hazy summer day, sometimes you can see toxic substances in Portland’s air. In some neighborhoods throughout the year, you can smell them.

Some Northwest Portland residents report they can even taste the metallic tinge that toxics leave on the palate, and they stay indoors to avoid it, even on hot days.

While toxic air can make your daily life miserable, it also can give you cancer, as eastside residents recently learned after revelations of cadmium and arsenic lurking in their air for who knows how long, much of it apparently from two small glass companies.

Over the past two weeks, many residents have been troubled by a series of maps, generated from DEQ data, showing concentrations of various toxics in the air. However, a map created for the Portland Tribune using EPA data on cancer risks, shows that almost every neighborhood has air contaminated by dangerous levels of carcinogenic heavy metals and chemical compounds.

Though that news is bad enough, it gets worse. On Dec. 17, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released data indicating that Portland’s air-quality problems extend far beyond the neighborhoods near the glass companies.

The National Air Toxics Assessment shows that Portland’s airshed is bursting with a toxic stew consisting of dozens of heavy metals and chemical compounds, including 49 that are carcinogenic. The assessment was based on raw data collected in 2011 that took several years for the EPA to analyze and compile.

“There are hot spots here and there, but, generally, there’s an elevated risk throughout the Portland area,” says Kevin Downing, the Clean Diesel Program coordinator for Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality.

The EPA looked at human health impacts from estimated exposure to outdoor sources ranging from tailpipes to industrial smokestacks. The agency examined the cancer risk from breathing 40 different toxic chemicals found in diesel exhaust — thought it didn’t assess the cancer risk from breathing tiny particles of soot from that exhaust. That’s because the EPA, unlike many other health and environmental agencies around the world, has determined there are no health studies that it considers suitable for estimating diesel’s cancer potency.

PHOTO COURTESY OF CASSANDRA PROFITA, OPB/EARTHFIX - A worker at Bullseye Glass, which makes artistic and architectural colored glass in Southeast Portland. The company has agreed to halt its use of arsenic, cadmium and chromium after carcinogenic levels of emissions were detected near its Southeast Portland plant.As a result, critics say the EPA is dramatically underestimating the deadly potency of the nation’s — and Portland’s — air.

Even so, says one of those critics, Portland Clean Air founder Greg Bourget, the EPA data still makes it clear that Portland’s toxic air is dangerous throughout the city, and is among “the worst in the country.”

Portland is a major manufacturing center and, as a port city, a destination for freight trucks, trains and ships. Its hilly geography acts as a mixing bowl that traps the dangerous compounds emitted by industry and vehicles.

Portland also is relatively compact because of its urban growth boundary, so many people wind up living close to industrial and high-traffic areas, says Corky Collier, executive director of the Columbia Corridor Association. Collier says he’s not surprised by the latest EPA data showing widespread toxins in the air over Portland, and suspects diesel emissions are a major factor.

It’s unclear how the air quality has changed since the EPA’s 2011 air sampling. But since the end of the Great Recession, traffic, manufacturing and business activity have increased.

More cancer risks here

Some cancers are caused by genetic factors, but the World Health Organization estimates that half are caused by environmental factors, like air pollution, and are preventable. The EPA estimates that Portland’s air is capable of causing between 26 and 86 extra cancers per 1 million people. In six census tracts near the city center, this cancer rate is worse than 99 percent of the country.

The EPA encourages people to use the results of its assessment “cautiously,” due to uncertainties in the data, limitations in computer models, and variations in data collection methods from location to location. Nevertheless, the database shows that the air in only 58 of the nation’s 3,200 counties is deemed capable of causing more cancer than in Multnomah County. One of them is King County in Washington. The 24 carcinogens detected in Seattle’s air are capable of causing an estimated 166 extra cancers per 1 million people. The nation’s worst air, according to the database, is found in New Orleans, where 39 airborne carcinogens are capable of causing an estimated 826 extra cancers per million people.

The database shows that while the heaviest concentration of carcinogens in Portland’s air are found in the downtown area, dangerous levels can be detected in every neighborhood throughout the city. Some of the heaviest concentrations occur along freeways, where diesel trucks belch a brew of carcinogens in their exhaust, as well as downwind from industrial polluters.

The DEQ also has prepared maps of air toxics in the area, though it factors in particulate matter from diesel as a carcinogen. Its maps also show widespread toxic air throughout the city.

Cancer is not the only health concern related to foul air. The EPA detected dangerous levels of another 17 toxics in Portland’s air, such as the acrid industrial chemical acrolein, which causes respiratory diseases like asthma. Portland’s air also is a dumping ground for low levels of lead, mercury and manganese, each of which can cause neurological and cognitive disorders in children, even at extremely small concentrations.

Neighbors target ESCO

Breathing the air in parts of Portland can be a little like drinking the water in Flint, Mich.

The EPA calculates that about 1,315 pounds of lead is dumped into Portland’s air yearly. Much of the lead enters the residential neighborhoods of Northwest Portland, including the Pearl District. The ESCO steel foundry at Northwest 25th and Vaughn Street can dump up to 207 pounds of lead into the air every year under its air pollution permit. Certain fuels and railroad locomotives also are sources of lead contamination in Portland, according to the EPA.

PHOTO COURTESY OF CASSANDRA PROFITA, OPB/EARTHFIX - Two residents wore extra protection at a recent community meeting to discuss toxic levels of metals detected in the air in Southeast Portland. The air in parts of Northwest Portland violates a health-safety benchmark for lead, with unknown health impacts on residents, according to the DEQ. Many doctors believe there are no safe levels of these metals.

ESCO says that its lead emissions stem from recycling old scrap metals, which sometimes contain lead. In the near future, its emissions are likely to go down as the company closes two of its three plants, says company spokeswoman Scenna Shipley. Along with lead, mercury and manganese, ESCO releases 37 different types of toxic air pollution, according to the DEQ, including hexavalent chromium, cadmium and formaldehyde.

From 2009 to 2011, the DEQ attempted to reduce the amount of toxic chemicals in the air through its Portland Air Toxic Solutions project, which identified unhealthy levels of 14 toxic compounds in the city’s air. But after a lengthy series of meetings, studies and public hearings, the project failed to find any solutions, disappointing many residents who demanded action.

Residents of Northwest Portland have been fighting a battle against toxic air for at least 20 years. In 2012, a citizen group, Neighbors for Clean Air, led by activist Mary Peveto, reached a Good Neighbor Agreement with ESCO, requiring the company to perform “technological fixes,” Peveto says. However, she notes that the agreement did not specify how much pollution ESCO would be required to cut. Neither the agreement nor the DEQ required ESCO to stop emitting lead.

“They wouldn’t tie themselves to a reduction standard,” she says. “They agreed to take technology implementation actions. Then they agreed that we would be able to verify that each of those actions was implemented fully and was meeting intended goals. They would not agree to a number that said we are going to reduce pollution by x amount.”

All of the actions that ESCO agreed to were added to its air pollution permit, which is enforced by the DEQ.

Scenna says ESCO is still working on technological upgrades to reduce air pollution.

“We’re still actively engaged on that front through the Good Neighbor Agreement,” she says.

Chevron targeted

The Northwest neighborhood achieved a more clear-cut victory over pollution in 2001, when two residents, documentary filmmaker Sharon Genasci and her husband, Don Genasci, sued Chevron for releasing massive amounts of toxic vapors from its gasoline storage facilities near the west end of the St. Johns Bridge.

At the time, the DEQ often issued ozone alerts that warned the entire city about unsafe air caused when toxic vapors reacted with the heat from sunlight. These alerts often occurred on days that Chevron refilled its storage tanks with gasoline pumped from river barges. These gasoline transfers from barges allowed massive amounts of toxic vapors to escape. A settlement of the lawsuit forced Chevron and several other gasoline companies to control this pollution.

In addition, the Genascis won a $75,000 judgment, which they spent on monitoring the neighborhood’s air pollution. This monitoring formed the basis of a concerted campaign for cleaner air that continues to this day.

Sharon Genasci, who investigated the air pollution in an award-winning documentary, “What’s in the Air?” today says the neighborhood’s air seems “just as bad as ever,” despite the ESCO agreement.

Until the toxic air is cleaned up, she adds, Portland’s reputation as a clean, environmentally sustainable city is more myth than reality.

“It’s so ironic, so infuriating,” she says of the recent revelations about carcinogens in Portland’s air attributed to glass companies. “Those are the same emissions we were complaining about 20 years ago, and nobody lifted a finger to help us.”


In December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its National Air Toxics Assessment, documenting measurable amounts of 49 carcinogenic substances in Portland’s air.

The multiyear study analyzed air samples from 2011, so some conditions have changed since then.

Here are the cancer-causing toxics the EPA detected in Portland air:

  • 1,1,2-Trichloroethane, used in laboratory research
  • 1,2-Dibromo-3-chloropropane, a banned pesticide
  • 1,3-Butadiene, found in diesel exhaust
  • 1,3-Dichloropropene, a pesticide
  • 1,4-Dichlorobenzene, a pesticide
  • 1,4-Dioxane, an ether
  • 2,4-Dinitrotoluene, found in polyurethane foams
  • 2,4-Toluene diisocyanate, found in polyurethane foams
  • 2-Nitropropane, used in inks, paints, adhesives
  • Acetaldehyde, found in diesel exhaust
  • Acrylamide, used to manufacture various polymers
  • Acrylonitrile, used to manufacture plastics
  • Allyl chloride, an alkylating agent
  • Arsenic compounds, found in diesel exhaust, ESCO emissions
  • Benzene, found in diesel exhaust, ESCO emissions
  • Benzidine, used to produce dyes
  • Benzyl chloride, a plasticizer
  • Beryllium compounds, found in diesel exhaust
  • Bis (2-ethylhexyl)phthalate, found in diesel exhaust
  • Bromoform, a solvent
  • Cadmium compounds, found in diesel exhaust, ESCO’s emissions
  • Carbon tetrachloride, found in diesel exhaust
  • Chloroprene, used to produce synthetic rubber
  • Chromium vi (hexavalent), found in diesel exhaust, ESCO’s emissions
  • Epichlorohydrin, used to produce glycerol
  • Ethylbenzene, found in diesel exhaust
  • Ethylene dibromide, found in diesel exhaust
  • Ethylene dichloride, found in diesel exhaust
  • Ethylene oxide, found in diesel exhaust
  • Ethylidene dichloride, a solvent
  • Formaldehyde, found in diesel exhaust, ESCO’s emissions
  • Hexachlorobenzene, found in diesel exhaust
  • Hexachlorobutadiene, used as a solvent
  • Hydrazine, used in specialty fuels
  • Methyl tert-butyl ether, found in diesel exhaust
  • Methylene chloride, found in diesel exhaust
  • Naphthalene, found in diesel exhaust, ESCO’s emissions
  • Nickel compounds, found in diesel exhaust, ESCO’s emissions
  • Nitrobenzene, found in diesel exhaust
  • O-toluidine, found in diesel exhaust
  • PAH/POM, found in diesel exhaust, ESCO’s emissions
  • Pentachlorophenol, a fungicide
  • PCBs, used in coolant fluids
  • Propylene oxide, used in polyurethane plastics
  • Tetrachloroethylene, used in dry-cleaning
  • Trichloroethylene, a solvent
  • Vinyl chloride, used to produce pvc
  • — Paul Koberstein. Sources: EPA, DEQ

    Paul Koberstein is editor of Cascadia Times, an online journal of environmental news at: times.org. A former reporter for The Oregonian and Willamette Week, his writing has also appeared in Grist, Earth Island Journal and The Progressive.