Toxic levels of arsenic found in Portland’s southeast quadrant

Photo courtesy Steve Morgan


By Julie Oatfield /// Staff Writer

Environmental disasters like Flint’s water crisis or Midwestern oil pipeline leaks often feel sudden and far away. Recently, many Portlanders have become aware of a less-publicized health hazard in their own backyards.

On Feb. 3, the Oregon state government issued a press release regarding the toxic levels of cadmium and arsenic emitted by Bullseye Glass Factory on SE 21st Street. Numerous agencies and organizations have shown concern about the pollution, raising questions about the health of the neighborhood, the greater Portland and Lewis & Clark communities.

State regulators first became aware of the elevated chemical levels in May 2015, but have yet to take action to remedy the situation.

“The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the Oregon Health Authority [OHA] 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,” the state said in a press release. “So far, data show that these metals are at levels above short- and long-term health benchmarks.”  

Exposure to levels of arsenic beyond these health benchmarks increases risks for lung, skin and bladder cancer while exposure to cadmium increases risks for lung cancer and kidney damage, reports the OHA.

Given the number of LC students and faculty visiting and living in Portland’s southeast quadrant, these issues regarding a single factory affect lives throughout the city. Leslie Muir ’17 has family in the neighborhood.

“[My mother] had heard about the Bullseye Glass Factory pollution before briefly on the news, but had hoped it wasn’t actually backed up by anything scientifically substantial,” Muir said. “We have a backyard garden and eat some veggies out of it, but she thinks that the pollutants are most likely all around our property in other ways as well.”

Another Portland native, Isabel Thomas ’17, had a very straightforward response.

“I mean ‘ew don’t pollute’ is pretty much where I’m at,” Thomas said.

Ben Wilson ’18 also expressed concern about the roles of polluters and polluted communities.

“The regulators and the factory dropped the ball in a tremendous way,” Wilson said. “This would be horrifying anywhere, but it’s near a daycare and two public schools. I’m getting the message that the major players don’t care. If the people in control don’t care, then it’s our job to make them, apparently. These are kids in the area. And there’s no way this is an isolated incident. I’m concerned about this. How can we get on top of it?”
Addressing the problems is proving to be a difficult task. Muir suggests a wide-reaching city policy.

“Once there’s a known problem in the area for certain types of pollution, I think it should be the city’s job to inspect all properties for free for excessive levels of chemicals (such as cadmium near the glass factory and radon in most Portland neighborhoods),” Muir said.

Steve Duin of Oregon Live urges stronger enforcement of industry standards by government agencies, and less concern for polluting companies staying in business.

“So it is that at the Children’s Creative Learning Center just downwind from Bullseye Glass, the staff is pulling grass from the toxic soil, removing planters, power-washing the center and, for the moment, keeping more than 100 children indoors,” Duin said.

On Feb. 15, Gov. Kate Brown expressed dissatisfaction with the way in which state regulators have handled the situation, publicly calling for a solution to the issue and greater transparency among state environmental regulatory agencies.

According to some residents, greater pressure from Portlanders themselves may be the only way to ensure progress and accountability.

“The most helpful thing we can do is raise awareness about chemical pollutants in general in all of the forms they take, from pesticides to air fresheners to the flame-retardant covering on our sheets and linens,” Muir said.

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