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Toxics in Portland: What you need to know

What are the potential dangers from high levels of cancer-causing metals found in Portland, and should you be concerned for your health? 

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A map of elevated cadmium levels detected in Portland

A map of elevated cadmium levels detected in Portland less

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PORTLAND, Ore. – After a report that the Department of Environmental Quality knew there were high levels of toxics in Southeast Portland near public schools, state and local agencies have been working to quell fears from residents worried the cancer-causing elements could impact their health.

The issue was first reported by the Portland Mercury on Feb. 3. A news release was issued by the Department of Environmental Quality that same day, confirming it had found potentially concerning levels of the toxic metals at Bullseye Glass in Southeast Portland.

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High levels of cadmium near Uroboros Glass Studio in North Portland were also found. 

The DEQ asked the glass factories to stop using cadmium and arsenic, as well as two forms of chromium. The factories complied, but Portlanders continue to voice their concerns.

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What are the potential dangers of these toxics, and should you be concerned for your health? KGW talked with the DEQ and Oregon Health Authority about what you need to know.

View: Preliminary map of elevated cadmium levels

Note: The DEQ has not yet released a map of arsenic hot spots

What are cadmium, arsenic and chromium, and why should we be concerned?

Cadmium, arsenic and chromium are naturally occurring elements found in the environment. Cadmium and chromium are metals, and arsenic is a metalloid, meaning it has metal-like properties. 

Portland actually has relatively high levels of arsenic that occur naturally, but health officials don’t believe those levels are significant enough to impact residents’ health.

Cadmium, chromium and arsenic are sometimes used to make colored glass. At high levels, all can be toxic to people. The DEQ said it’s likely the elevated levels of metals were coming from the manufacturing plants.

Why were Bullseye and Uroboros Glass allowed to use these toxic chemicals?

The glass companies were both permitted by the DEQ and operating legally. The state agency said permits like this are usually focused on larger-scale productions, and there may be holes in state regulations.

How were the toxics found?

The toxics were actually detected through a relatively new technique, by testing moss and drawing a correlation between toxics in the moss and those in the air.

“We just fortunately discovered this new way of identifying cadmium levels in moss,” said Jennifer Flynt, spokeswoman for DEQ. “We have been very excited about this discovery and we knew cadmium was a problem.”

The DEQ said neither the state nor the companies knew about the toxics before the moss testing. Documents showed the DEQ knew about elevated toxics as early as 2011. 

Flynt said the DEQ was working to figure out exactly what the health issues were and how to inform the public when the Mercury article was published.

Are these companies still using cadmium, chromium and arsenic to manufacture glass?

No. Even though it’s technically legal for the factories to use the toxics based on their permits, both companies have voluntarily stopped using the metals. Uroboros said it never used arsenic in the first place, just cadmium and chromium.  

Should I be concerned for my health?

Maybe. The levels of cadmium and arsenic were found to be between 50 and 150 times higher than what the DEQ sets as its benchmark for safety.

An air test taken inside schools near Bullseye Glass showed no detectable arsenic or chromium, according to Portland Public Schools.

Additional air tests near Bullseye Glass and Uroboros Glass taken in early March, a month after the factories stopped using the heavy metals, found the air was again safe to breathe. 

Soil samples taken from around Bullseye Glass found that heavy metals were below naturally occurring levels, the DEQ said March 9. 

DEQ: Heavy metals risk low for Portlanders, soil samples show

More soil and air samples were expected later this spring. 

Cadmium and arsenic can be dangerous to breathe, ingest through food and through skin contact.

Cadmium is associated with lung cancer, osteoporosis and chronic kidney disease. Arsenic exposure is linked to lung, liver, bladder and skin cancers.

Hexavalent chromium (chromium-6) is toxic and chronic, low-level exposure can increase the risk of certain lung cancers and asthma, according to the DEQ. Chromium-3, or trivalent chromium, is an essential nutrient found in human bodies but the state is concerned about the possibility of chromium-3 oxidizing into chromium-6. 

The Oregon Health Authority said it is not sure how significant the health risk is in this case and the agency is monitoring urine samples.

“The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the Oregon Health Authority and Multnomah County Health Department are working together to determine the significance to public health and how to communicate the potential risk to affected people. So far, data show that these metals are at levels above short- and long-term health benchmarks,” the organization said.

OHA toxicologist David Farrer said it would take 70 years of constant exposure to see an increase in the risk of cancers from arsenic and cadmium. He said cadmium can increase the risk of chronic kidney disease, but only after years of exposure.

There are no immediate signs of exposure and there are multiple causes of cancer and kidney disease, not just from encountering cadmium, arsenic or hexavalent chromium. If you’re worried you or your family members have been exposed, you can get tested at your doctor’s office. 

What about soil? Should I stop eating vegetables grown in my garden?

The DEQ is testing soil around the two businesses but isn’t monitoring people’s backyards.

If you live near the hotspots, you can get your soil tested at a local facility such as A&L Western Labs in Portland. It costs $54 to test a sample of your soil for the metals.

But a spokesman with OHA said metals in the soil don’t necessarily mean you’re ingesting them in food. Some plants absorb toxins more than others.

The DEQ said it’s important to wash dirt off of your vegetables and peel skin from root vegetables before eating them.

Initial soil tests around Bullseye Glass did not show elevated levels of toxic metals. 

The DEQ said it will continue to monitor air quality and release weekly reports here

Are we safe now?

The DEQ says yes. Air pollution clears with wind and rain, and the glass makers are no longer using cadmium, chromium or arsenic. No toxics were detected in the air at Southeast Portland schools.

Is there any other area of concern?

Flynt said she didn’t know. The DEQ only has one person who works on air quality planning, instead of the five it used to employ, and there are many areas that could be concerning. For instance, the DEQ still hasn’t figured out what is causing an offensive smell on Hayden Island. But Flynt told KGW the agency is working on a plan to monitor air toxics around the city.

Have other questions? The DEQ set up an email address specifically for this issue: OregonAirToxics@deq.state.or.us.

Related: Cadmium, arsenic detected in SE Portland 

Glass company calls DEQ requests to halt chromium use 'bizarre'

Bullseye Glass: Toxic air reports hit 'like a ton of bricks'

This article was originally published Feb. 10, 2016

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