Portland State University, the city of Portland and Multnomah County announced plans Wednesday to spend $125,000 on a two-year study of the city’s toxic air pollution.
Officials said the research is designed to respond to an outpouring of public concern over toxic metal hotspots discovered by a recent U.S. Forest Service study of tree moss. The study found multiple heavy metal hot spots across the city, including two cadmium hot spots near artistic glassmaking facilities.
PSU environmental studies professor Linda George will lead the project, which will be funded by $62,500 from PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions, $31,250 from the City of Portland and $31,250 from Multnomah County.
Portland Mayor Charlie Hales thanked PSU for stepping up to do “much needed” work.
“You know, we as Portlanders believe we live in a green, sustainable, clean place,” Hales said. “So it has been very disturbing, really fearful for people to learn there is this threat to public health that comes from air pollution — something we really don’t expect to have in our community.”
Most of the money will go toward purchasing specialized X-ray fluorescence analysis equipment that will allow researchers to test moss, leaves and soil for a variety of contaminants.
The project will collect up to 100 samples of air, soil, moss and indoor surfaces from six sites that have yet to be identified. Researchers will use the results to analyze pollution sources, estimate air pollution levels and map how contaminants are dispersed across the city.
George said she hopes the project will lead to “rapid-response” environmental pollution testing strategies and new techniques for tracking pollution that will translate to other contaminants, such as diesel particulate matter.
The goal is not to duplicate efforts by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, George said, but to collaborate with the agency.
“As a regulatory agency, DEQ’s activities and budgets are controlled by state and federal priorities, and as such they are limited in the kind of monitoring they can pursue,” she said.
Over the course of two years, George said, the project will provide more information about the sources of metals in the air and how they are dispersed in the environment. The results will be shared with the city, county and interested residents.
“One of the unfortunate outcomes of the moss study was the lack of preparation to deal with very concerned, legitimately concerned, residents who are disproportionately impacted by local sources,” George said. “We don’t need to make that mistake again.”
Jae Douglas, director of environmental health for Multnomah County, said she’s hoping to see PSU’s research “dovetail” into the state's effort to develop health-based air pollution regulations. Dougals said the PSU study could reveal how metals are distributed from pollution sources into the surrounding environment.
“That will give us a better indication of which sources need to be better monitored and better enforced,” she said.
Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said the research partnership will deliver more information about what’s in the city’s air and soil to the many residents who are struggling to understand the health impacts of the recently discovered heavy metal hot spots.
“It has been a shock to learn that the air in our beautiful region could be unhealthy and even dangerous to breathe,” she said. “I believe the more information that is in the hands of the public, the more likely we will be to sustain the level of public involvement needed to see meaningful reform of our regulatory system that must put health first."