Glassmaking, Pollution, and Air Quality Control in Portland

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In March of 2016, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality released information regarding the soil and air quality in Portland, stating that traces of toxic heavy metal emissions in the area may have been caused by two colored glass plants in southeast and north Portland, and that they may cause potential health risks.

Glass making companies Uroboros and Bullseye Glass have been under inspection by the Department of Environmental Quality since February, but in recent weeks have concluded that toxicity levels are not high enough to pose a public health risk to people in the area.

The initial source of this pollution has been connected to carcinogenic hexavalent chromium, a pollutant made famous by Erin Brockovich, however, there has not been confirmation that the presence of this pollutant was caused by the glass making companies.

 Pollutants emitted from glasswork companies in Southeast Portland have amassed concern (Michaela Bennink '16)
Pollutants emitted from glasswork companies in Southeast Portland have amassed concern (Michaela Bennink ’16)

“At this time, we do not know the source of the fluctuation in hexavalent chromium levels,” DEQ Lab Director Brian Boling told The Oregonian. “We are investigating other possible sources of the hexavalent chromium, and we will be analyzing wind speed and direction to help us identify potential sources.”

Despite levels of these pollutants being low enough to maintain a safe living space, some people who’ve lived in southeast Portland in the past have suffered from various health issues possibly correlated to their living conditions. Laurie Simpson, who lives in the area, told The Oregonian that she had been feeling fatigue throughout 2014.

Simpson found through doctors that she had suffered exposure to arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury, though Uroboros had previously suspended the use of cadmium and chromium for glassmaking. When Simpson retested in 2015, despite attempting to flush the pollutants out her body through diets, mud baths, and vitamin supplements, the levels did not change.

Yet studies of air in these areas today show there is little potential for health issues caused by living near or around areas with these glass making companies, and with Bullseye now abandoning the use of arsenic, but re-continuing the use of cadmium after installing a new air filter, determining and eliminating the source of this toxicity grows more difficult over time.

Tests by the DEQ took 21 soil samples in at the Albina Community Garden, Lillis Albina Park, and Grandma’s Place Daycare, though an alternate form of air quality monitoring may be instrumental in determining and regulating the environmental stability of the Portland area.

Moss has been used as a bioindicator for years by various forest services and other agencies.  Because of the lack of roots, moss can absorb the water, nutrients, and in this case pollutants, from the atmosphere in order to gauge the concentration of specific harmful substances.

Researchers from the U.S Forest Service used this moss in order to find specified levels of cadmium, but using moss may also be a very cost effective tool for air regulation.

“Our study shows that moss bioindicators have the potential to improve air-quality monitoring by serving as a screening tool to help cities strategically place their air-quality monitors,” local research lichenologist Sarah Joven told in the July edition of Science of the Total Environment. “The heavy metals analysis for moss costs us $50 per site, a low cost that makes it possible to sample extensively and flag hotspots for follow-up instrumental monitoring.”

Although this tool may not provide as accurate a measurement as current soil measurements, the use of moss in Portland and further restrictions by the Department of Environmental Quality are the most important steps in the following months to keep Portland clean.