A Plea for Health-Based Standards

Ethan Ogle with Pilot

Ethan Ogle with Pilot

It was early September 2001 and a younger version of myself had just moved to Portland. My oldest sister, who had lived here for a few years already, found us a cute 2-bedroom apartment in SE. It was a scary and exciting time; I was fresh out of my parents’ house, on my own – I loved my city!

Over the years Portland changed a great deal and myself along with it. I moved out of the apartment with my sister and experienced several other neighborhoods. I started making friends who were interested in the same stuff I was – I started to feel a real sense of community. I worked a bunch of odd jobs and lived in a bunch of odd places, common for 20-somethings, but whatever part of town I lived in I always wanted to move back to SE, back to my home.

And I did move back; in 2010 into a place off SE 28th Ave. I walked to re-acquaint myself with the neighborhood. I remember the first time I walked all the way down Gladstone, to where it swings around and turns into 22nd. I thought it was so cool the first time I looked into the dumpster of one of the factories and it was full of different colored glass! The train tracks had this rickety wooden bridge – it was an industrial wonderland, right at the edge of my neighborhood. I didn’t think twice about air pollution because we have state agencies with names like Department of Environmental Quality to make sure everything is safe.

Fast forward to February 2016: in my new house, a few blocks further up the hill on Gladstone St. At the time I was sick with this crazy flu that I just couldn’t shake – weeks and weeks, I was in the grip of it, laying in bed all day – I was bored. I grabbed my phone and started scrolling – I discover moss maps showing my house in a red zone of some kind.

Has this beautiful neighborhood been toxic all along? State agencies don’t seem to know. Don’t eat the vegetables in your garden, they say. Levels are above short-term exposure benchmarks, but below long-term limits.

I get the creeping suspicion that my flu might be something more. I had more questions – that couple a few houses down who are always jogging and hauling grocery bags brimming with farmer’s market produce, why are they coughing so much? Are they not healthy? Is it safe to pluck a sprig off this giant rosemary bush and put it in my pasta sauce? Why can’t the State tell us anything? Why are the polluting industries not taking any action to stop?

It turns out the entire state of Oregon has problems with air toxics. There’s lead in the water in our public schools. People statewide clamor for change, for a new system, with health-based regulations and the Precautionary Principle.

So now my eyes are open and I’m not alone. People expect their tax-funded agencies to have health-based standards. Of course there won’t be lead in children’s toys – that would be against health-based standards. Of course oil companies can’t build pipelines under a river – that would be against health-based standards. Glass companies can’t use hexavalent chromium – that would be against health-based standards.

So now it’s up to us. No longer can we put our faith in agencies that have failed us. This is a revolution of the people. I’m going to fight with every breath for the clean air and water I deserve – and the right to live safely in the neighborhood that I love.