We learned that we’ve been breathing dangerously high levels of cancer-causing heavy metals

On February 3, the Portland Mercury reported that an art-glass factory at SE 22nd Avenue and Powell Boulevard was emitting dangerous levels of toxic air pollutants. Prompted by an innovative U.S. Forest Service study aimed at pinpointing sources of air pollution by sampling moss, DEQ had performed air monitoring tests near Bullseye Glass the previous October.

ArsenicThe test results revealed levels of airborne arsenic and cadmium averaging 159 and 49 times the state’s safety goals, respectively. Bullseye’s glass furnaces had been operating without pollution controls since 1974. Some of us have been huffing their fumes for 42 years.

Then we looked at how those numbers translated to health risks

Exposure to arsenic and cadmium, just two of dangerous pollutants detected near Bullseye, can cause serious health risks such as lung and bladder cancer. According Oregon Health Authority (OHA), a person breathing the air near Bullseye over a lifetime would face an excess cancer risk of one in 20,000 from cadmium inhalation alone. The agency has not released health risk estimates for arsenic, the metal found at levels of even higher concern, or addressed combined health risks from exposure to multiple pollutants. And while the agency has advised that for most glass factory neighbors, short-term and long-term health risks are low, it has not revealed the basis for that conclusion. From our vantage point, it appears likely the risks have been high enough to kill one our neighbors.

We got together and raised a ruckus – and we got some results

12783733_10153915702559598_6030917737986250077_oEastside Portland Air Coalition (EPAC) began forming via social media the day the Mercury story broke. Over the next six weeks, under pressure from our members – now more than 3,000 strong – DEQ reached agreements with Bullseye and North Portland art-glass manufacturer Uroboros to temporarily suspend use of three heavy metals (cadmium, arsenic and another dandy we spotted on Bullseye’s batch list, chromium).

Governor Kate Brown led the legislature in passing a $2.5 million funding package to beef up DEQ’s air monitoring activities and examine its rulemaking precepts. And DEQ started two new rule-making processes – one temporary, one permanent – to strengthen controls on art-glass factory emissions in Oregon.

But we’re not satisfied

We need to be talking about more than art-glass factories. More than three heavy metals. And more than a budgetary bonus for a broken system.

DEQ, OHA and the Multnomah County Health Department have joined forces to respond to the public’s emergent concerns about air pollution. But from both a programmatic and public-information perspective, the agency response has been strangely myopic.

For one thing, the moss study that got this whole thing started found evidence of numerous emission sources – seven for arsenic, more for cadmium, nickel and lead – scattered throughout Eastside Portland and Milwaukie. But the agencies have focused on just two sources, both glassmakers. For another, DEQ’s own files reveal that art-glass manufacturers fill their furnace batches with dozens of dangerous materials, such as lead, nickel and manganese. But the agencies have focused on just three. Why? As far as we can tell, it’s because the whole system is screwy.

We need to be talking about the dysfunction – maybe corruption — exemplified by the Bullseye loophole

It wasn’t a mistake. For decades DEQ has been granting permits to art-glass manufacturers to emit dangerous levels of toxics from uncontrolled furnaces. When the EPA established stricter rules for glass manufacturing in 2007, DEQ alerted Bullseye to lobby for an exemption that kept Oregon’s weaker rules in place. When Governor Brown called upon DEQ earlier this year to adopt a “risk-based, health-based” system for regulating air pollution, it was a clear admission that such a system does not presently exist. DEQ’s record of caving to the art-glass industry appears to exemplify a pervasive agency culture of putting business interests ahead of public health.

We need to be talking about the larger air pollution problems these lapses have created for the entire state. We’re taking action.