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Tree moss research informed two multi-million dollar class action lawsuits for air pollution in Portland

Moss holds heavy metals from the air that can show researchers areas that may be suffering from heavy metal air pollution.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Bullseye Glass and Precision Castparts both had to put out millions of settlement dollars after they were involved in class action lawsuits regarding their air pollution levels.

Those who received settlement money from the companies have, in part, moss and local researchers to thank.

In 2016, the U.S. Forest Service released a report of its raw findings on Portland moss and air quality. It showed that some moss samples collected around Portland had high concentrations of multiple toxic metals.

Sarah Jovan was one of the lead researchers on the moss research that stemmed these two class action lawsuits. When KGW’s Pat Dooris spoke with her in 2016, on the heels of the Forest Service’s original report, she was coming around to being a moss “fangirl.” She discovered that the tree moss held onto heavy metals that lurked in the air.

The Bullseye Glass settlement came in 2019 to the tune of $6.5 million. As for Precision Castparts, it settled earlier in March for $22.5 million, which includes millions that have already been spent at the plant for better emission controls. The lawsuit alleged that the factory emitted toxic metals that polluted nearby homes.

Neighbors who live near Precision Castparts are eligible to file for some of the settlement money, but you must do that by April 9.

Dooris caught up with Jovan recently and it turns out, she’s still collecting moss. What’s more, she is converting youngsters into moss fanatics, too. In spring 2020, she went to the Seattle area to train the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps in the art and science of moss collection.

RELATED: Moss data shows concentrations of metals in Portland

“It’s the first time anyone — any group of people, like nonscientists — have really done the method and done a good job. We had experts also go out and collect just to compare and make sure and they did fantastically,” said Jovan. “Their data were repeatable.”

The group found arsenic and chromium in the moss in some areas. The levels were double the amount found here in Portland in the polluted neighborhoods. People in some socioeconomically depressed neighborhoods in the Seattle area were getting sick with little explanation.

“That was very rewarding to me, to be helping solve this long-standing problem,” said Jovan. “There's one air quality monitor, maybe two, in that entire area. You can imagine if you want to learn about neighborhood-scale pollution, that doesn’t tell you anything. They now are armed with a whole bunch of very specific information about where the metals are and that helps focus those follow-up efforts, and hopefully at the end of the day they'll reach solutions that are helpful."

Jovan told KGW she spent more of the pandemic compiling results of her research and writing it to be published in a scientific journal. She is also fielding requests for moss help as researchers in other parts of the country are beginning to study tree moss for the presence of heavy metals.

While Bullseye Glass settled this month, the saga continues. There is a community meeting regarding the glass company’s public health assessment draft report. It will be a virtual Zoom meeting open to the public on April 5 from 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m.

RELATED: Precision Castparts Corp. air pollution settlement will average $3,500 per household

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