Publication Date


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City Club of Portland Bulletin, Vol. 95, No. 35, April 25, 2013

Executive Summary

Portland still has a serious air pollution problem.

Portland’s metro area endures toxic air pollutants at concentrations that negatively affect the public’s overall health and increase the rate of disease. At least 52 air toxics are present in Oregon, and between six and ten are at unhealthy concentrations in Portland (see Table 1 on page 11).

Smog is under control. Air Toxics are not.

Air pollution control has developed along two pathways: one for criteria pollutants (or smog) and one for air toxics. Smog pollutants have steadily declined under orchestrated mandates by the Environmental Protection Agency and Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. However, air toxics have not been sufficiently controlled or reduced for the Portland metropolitan area.

City Club members, and the public, may be unaware of Air Toxics.

Air Quality Index reporting, Air Pollution Advisories, and other existing alert systems do not measure or report levels of air toxics. In fact, only three monitoring stations in the state are capable of detecting air toxics, only one is in the metro area, and the results are poorly publicized. As a result, many well-informed citizens receive an incomplete and reassuring impression that we have conquered “air pollution.”

Air Toxics cause health problems.

The scientific community now understands how tiny exposures, over time, affect health. Roughly quantified, 180 more cases of cancer occur in the Portland metro area due to each of the six air toxics listed in Table 1.

Air Toxics' sources may surprise you.

A comprehensive process conducted by an expert advisory committee of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) yielded a listing of source in priority order. [i] Based on the research performed over the last 18 months, your City Club committee refined that list to the following priority order:

  1. Residential wood combustion
  2. Cars and light trucks
  3. Heavy duty diesel vehicles (freight trucks and dump trucks)
  4. Non-road internal combustion engines (construction equipment and generators)
  5. Industrial metals facilities

While your City Club committee recognizes that tackling emissions coming from a company yard, a construction site, or an industrial process may take priority for a specific neighborhood, this list prioritizes action that will benefit everyone in the Portland metro area.

Change will require coordination.

The five priority areas encompass home, leisure, and work life, and different parts of the Portland airshed have different concentrations of each. Anti-pollution initiatives will require coordination between government agencies to change the behavior of thousands of small businesses and individuals.

Industrial emissions are regulated, but standards vary.

The industrial and commercial emissions permitting processes are subjected to ongoing public debate, policy proposals, news coverage, and regulatory enforcement. However, no federal, state or metro-area ambient standards exist for air toxics. As a result, it is difficult to know the concentration of toxics in our airshed.

Behavior and policy change will require effective public education.

News coverage and public education has been haphazard. Many in the region know about specific pollution sources, such as forest fires, heavy metals, or coal train cars. The concentration of one or two pollutants leads to broad generalizations about the quality of our air. For Portlanders to understand the 15 different air toxics that are negatively affecting our health, coordinated information systems are required.

[i] Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Air Quality Division: 2010. “Oregon Air Toxics Benchmarks.”

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