Portland’s air is dirtier than we thought. The discovery that urban moss could be used as air quality monitors throughout the city was a tremendous scientific step by researchers at the U.S. Forest Service. That moss revealed “hot spots” throughout Portland with concentrations of toxic heavy metals like cadmium, arsenic, nickel and lead. So far two cadmium hotspots have been linked to colored glass makers Bullseye Glass and Uroboros Glass. The nickel hotspot has been attributed to Precision Castparts.
Since the toxic hotspot bombshell hit a month ago, inadequate pollution regulations have been exposed, neighbors have expressed their anger and state air quality officials have resigned from their posts.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. There are major gaps in our air quality regulations, meaning there’s a lot we still don’t know. Environmental regulators admit they didn’t know how much cadmium and arsenic were coming out of the Bullseye Glass facility. They still don’t. The company is exempt from such regulations under federal law.
But that’s not all regulators don’t know. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality only has one permanent air quality monitor for the city of Portland. The same is true for the Washington Department of Ecology with its solitary permanent air quality monitor in Seattle. That means much of what’s known about the Northwest's air quality is based on calculations and modeling, not actual testing.
Those are both reasons the DEQ was admittedly caught off guard by news of the toxic hotspots in Portland. Many residents have been angered over what DEQ doesn’t know about the city’s air. The DEQ is anticipating that it will be getting additional funding to expand the agency’s air toxics program.
The Forest Service’s moss data found a lead hotspot in North Portland whose source remains a mystery. The Forest Service has data on other toxics found in the moss that it hasn’t released yet because it’s not finished with its scientific process.
2. Two top air quality regulators have now left their posts. Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Director Dick Pedersen is stepping down effective mid-March, citing health-related reasons. An hour after Pedersen’s resignation was announced, news broke that an air quality manager in Portland, David Monro, is also leaving the agency for a new job outside state government.
Both resignations come in the midst of mounting criticism for how DEQ regulated the pollution from two glass companies in Portland and how it responded to news of toxic hotspots in the city’s air. A DEQ spokeswoman calls the timing of the two departures a coincidence.
Their departures come in the midst of a growing sentiment that DEQ’s regulations and response to the findings have been inadequate.
3. Neighbors are concerned and getting themselves tested for exposure to these metals. Not much is known about how the concentrations found in the moss relate to actual exposures or what people in the area have actually been breathing. The Oregon Health Authority’s literature on the topic says the values indicate potential risks, and that “there is no ongoing risk of exposure from these pollutants through the air” because both glass makers have suspended the use of arsenic, cadmium and chromium.
The state has not yet asked Precision Castparts to suspend its use of nickel or arsenic.
The Oregon Health Authority has also offered to help pay for tests. It also established a new rule that allows labs to report results to the state. A citizens group, the “Eastside Portland Air Coalition,” is asking people to post their own test results online.
The state is also conducting soil tests, and the results should be out soon. Officials have warned people living in the hotspots not to eat vegetables from backyard gardens.
4. The state sat on information about metals hotspots for more than a year. The Forest Service first shared some preliminary data about a cadmium hotspot in Portland with the DEQ in November 2014. News of the toxic air didn’t reach the public until Feb. 3, the same day the Portland Mercury broke the toxic air story.
Emails released under the state’s public records law show DEQ asked the forest service to keep quiet about the source of emissions until they could learn more. An email from a forest service researcher to the DEQ mentions that a cadmium hotspot surrounds Bullseye but adds “However, I know you’re trying to be discreet about glass for now.”
After all the news broke, a timeline DEQ sent to Oregon Gov.Kate Brown about what it knew and when was wrong about when DEQ first learned of the cadmium hotspot.
5. State regulators had years worth of complaints about Bullseye Glass. DEQ staff have repeatedly said it was the Forest Service’s moss data that tipped them off to emissions problems at Bullseye Glass. But DEQ has been getting complaints about the glass manufacturer since the late 1980s, none of which appear to have resulted in a thorough investigation of its emissions.
Bullseye says the complaints were unfounded, and attributed one to the financial incentives of a competitor. The company has also questioned the certainty of the science that pinpointed it as the source of toxic metals in the moss.
6. DEQ didn’t even require a permit for Uroboros Glass. Through the years, DEQ staff have questioned whether the colored glass maker in Northeast Portland needed an air quality permit, including as far back as 1984. However, it was never required to obtain one. State regulators said nothing in federal law required it.
Uroboros thus stayed largely off the state’s radar. When a DEQ air monitor found elevated levels of cadmium at nearby Harriet Tubman School in 2009, the agency conducted an investigation for sources but did not connect it to Uroboros at the time. When DEQ first sent a list of glass manufacturers to the Forest Service researchers to overlay on their map of metals hot spots, Uroboros was not on it.
Bullseye Glass later complained to DEQ that it was unfair to name that company on the cadmium hotspot map but not its competitor, Uroboros.
7. Moss could revolutionize air quality. Not to be lost in the scare over exposure to these metals and the state’s response is the discovery of urban moss clusters as a newfound legion of cheap, plentiful air quality monitors.
Scientists have been using moss and lichen to study air for a while, but Forest Service researchers in Portland are the first to do so on a city-wide scale. Air quality monitors are expensive and require maintenance, and installing them throughout cities is unlikely.
Forest service researchers said they found an extremely high correlation between between what they found in moss and what they found in air quality monitoring, meaning they can take what they found in moss to be a true indicator of what’s been in the air.