The Air We Breathe

Last fall, just as kids all over the Portland metro area packed bright, new backpacks for the first week of school, wildfire smoke and ash blanketed the metro area.

It rolled in from the Columbia Gorge’s Eagle Creek fire and beyond and lingered for days, stinging little eyes, burning small lungs, and trapping kids inside with pent-up energy and nowhere safe to play. Eventually, the smoke cleared, but the fires were an unwelcome taste of life in a city choked with pollution.


But many Portland residents have been worried about air pollution for some time, and they know that it often comes in a more insidious form, less visible but just as dangerous over the long term.

Residents of Southeast Portland learned in 2016 that their air was high in cadmium and arsenic, thanks to the Bullseye Glass factory in their neighborhood; in North Portland, residents have complained about the effects of the Daimler Plant on Swan Island for years. In Northwest Portland, industrial air pollution from ESCO’s metal foundry made clean air activists out of local parents and eventually led to a “good neighbor” agreement with the plant.

“I used to call myself an accidental activist,” says Mary Peveto, president and co-founder of Neighbors for Clean Air, a local advocacy group that was involved in the effort to get ESCO to clean up their emissions. “I had no background in environmental health or any of this, except I’m a parent, and that’s our background in everything. Honestly, as a parent, it’s not accidental. If something is threatening or a risk to your children, you are going to do something about it.”

How Bad Is Portland’s Air?

EPA data indicates that Multnomah County has the worst air quality in the state and the largest population affected, with Clackamas and Washington Counties close behind. Based on their estimates, Multnomah County residents have double the risk of cancer and quadruple the risk of respiratory disease from air pollution compared to the state average, and kids are especially vulnerable to these health effects.


In 2011, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) released estimates of concentrations of 19 potentially toxic air pollutants in the Portland area. Of these, 14 were found in concentrations higher than the benchmarks set by the state to protect the health of residents (some more than ten times higher). Among these were arsenic and cadmium, the heavy metals eventually linked to glass manufacturing in 2016.

For neighbors of glass factories and other industrial sources of toxic emissions, that’s a real concern. But county-wide, air pollution that can be tied to industrial point sources is just one very small slice of the pie — making up about one half of one percent of estimated cancer risk from air pollution. The biggest culprits? Emissions from gas and diesel-burning engines and smoke from wood-burning stoves.

Many factors contribute to Portland’s air pollution problem, says Matt Hoffman, policy analyst at Multnomah County Environmental Health Services. Emissions come from the major highways, Port of Portland and the many rail lines running through Portland, as well as industry clustered along the Willamette River. And our location in the center of the Willamette Valley means pollutants tend to settle into the air we breathe, rather than dissipating into the atmosphere.

But there’s no doubt that regulations — or lack thereof — have also contributed to Portland’s air issues. In the case of the heavy metal emissions from southeast Portland’s Bullseye Glass, Hoffman says two factors allowed that crisis to happen: “It was a product of, one, a lack of rules that were health-protective of people living in proximity to the facility; and two, of zoning and land use and where we place our industry.”

Hoffman says that while the Clean Air Act has done a very good job of cleaning up the air in terms of six major pollutants that cause smog and ozone, rules governing other pollutants are much more permissive, allowing large amounts of emissions without consideration for how close facilities may be to residential neighborhoods.

How Does Air Pollution Affect Children’s Health?

Paul Lewis, M.D., Multnomah County Health Officer and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at OHSU, points to several reasons to worry about long-term exposure to air pollutants for children. “Kids are more vulnerable because their engines rev at higher speeds than adults. Kids would rather run than walk, their hearts beat faster, and pound for pound they breathe far more than grown-ups. This makes air pollution a bigger deal for them,” he says.

Kids are also still developing, and they “have decades in front of them,” Dr. Lewis says. “Exposure to chemicals might not cause disease for many years so exposure early in life is more dangerous.” Study after study shows that kids exposed to more air pollution have a harder start in life, with effects that can last a lifetime.

For example, research from California and Florida found that greater exposure to fine particulate matter pollution during pregnancy — primarily from gas and diesel traffic — is associated with a higher risk of preterm birth. Early life exposure to these pollutants also increases a child’s risk of developing asthma and allergies.

Air pollution affects brain development, too. Several studies have found that exposure to air pollution during pregnancy increases the risk of autism in the baby. In Texas, researchers found that more exposure to air pollution was correlated to lower school performance in fifth graders. Heavy metals, like the ones in the air near Bullseye, are linked to negative effects on brain development and behavior, as well as cancer risk. According to the CDC, there is no safe level of lead exposure for children; it can cause brain damage, slowed growth and development, and problems with learning, behavior, hearing and speech.

Some children bear the burden of air pollution more than others. For example, Multnomah County’s 2014 Report Card on Racial and Ethnic Disparities found that while pollution from diesel emissions is too high across Multnomah County, kids in census tracts with at least 15 percent of the population identifying as Black/African American, Asian/Pacific Islander or Latino are breathing two to three times more diesel particulate matter than kids in predominantly white neighborhoods.

“If you’re a kid on a tricycle, how can you get away from a polluted neighborhood?” asks Lewis. “Kids — even less than adults — don’t choose where they live and don’t choose the air they breathe.”

A Path to Cleaner Air for Oregon?

If anything good came out of the Bullseye Glass situation, it was greater awareness of the problem. Bullseye installed new pollution control systems, and their emissions are now down to acceptable levels. And Governor Kate Brown made a commitment to step up air quality regulations so that, for the first time, industrial emissions standards would be based on protecting human health.

Draft rules for the new program, called Cleaner Air Oregon, were released in October. Following in the footsteps of California and Washington state, the new rules would require industrial facilities to report their emissions and meet limits based on health risks to neighboring residents, neither of which are part of current regulations. Lewis, who was part of an advisory committee for the new rules, says, “The best thing about Cleaner Air Oregon is that the system is transforming from basically arbitrary to one that has a basis in biology and health. It’s a fantastic step and essential foundation for the future.”

But Lewis is still pushing to make the rules better, saying he’d like to see faster implementation and stricter health-based standards than are in the current draft of the rules. Cleaner Air Oregon also only addresses pollution from industrial point sources like factories; it won’t reduce the impact of sources like diesel emissions.

In the coming year, the draft rules will be revised in response to public comments and then considered for approval by the state’s Environmental Quality Commission in July 2018. Funding for the new program is dependent on the state legislature approving in their 2018 session a one-time fee on polluting companies, a proposal that failed in 2017.

“The reality is our state doesn’t fund our Department of Environmental Quality’s air program adequately, and so it won’t matter what the rules look like if the legislature doesn’t fund the agency,” Mary Peveto says. And so, she sees plenty more work to do. She urges parents to get involved in organizations like Neighbors for Clean Air and keep letting their elected officials know they care about air quality in Portland. “Every child deserves a fair shot at living in a clean, safe environment. We have a moral imperative to do better,” she says.

How can you help clear Portland’s air?

Walk, bike, carpool, use public transit — whatever steps you can take to reduce your family’s contribution to traffic emissions.

Plant trees. They make our city more beautiful and help clean the air.

If you can, consider replacing wood stoves with cleaner sources of heat, like gas, pellet, or EPA-certified wood stoves.

Advocate for cleaner air. “The most important thing you can do for your kids and your future grandchildren is to be strong advocates for limits on air pollution as soon as possible,” says Paul Lewis, M.D.

Fourteen of 19 air toxics across the Portland metro area had higher levels than health standards, according to the Oregon DEQ. Eight were more than 10 times higher.

Advocate for cleaner air with these organizations

Neighbors for Clean Air

Eastside Portland Air Coalition

South Portland Air Quality

OPAL EnvironmentalJustice Oregon

Beyond Toxics

Alice Callahan, PhD
Latest posts by Alice Callahan, PhD (see all)
Scroll to Top