'Cleaner Air Oregon' Urged to Protect Children First

Toxic air pollution can permanently damage a child’s developing mind. Rules that protect children from unhealthy air will protect everyone.

While the respiratory system is often the first body part harmed by toxic air exposures, the developing brain may face more lasting damage.

Some substances, such as lead, are so toxic no amount is safe, medical research shows. 

By PAUL KOBERSTEIN

Aug. 2, 2018

 Environmental Quality Commission at a July 12 hearing in Portland. Members, from left, are Wade Mosby, Molly Kile, chair Kathleen George, Greg Addington and Sam Barasso.

Environmental Quality Commission at a July 12 hearing in Portland. Members, from left, are Wade Mosby, Molly Kile, chair Kathleen George, Greg Addington and Sam Barasso.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- At a public hearing in mid-July, members of the public urged the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission (EQC) to focus on protecting children from toxic air pollution when it enacts Cleaner Air Oregon (CAO) regulations this fall. Rules that protect children from unhealthy air, they said, will protect everyone.

The Cleaner Air Oregon rules would be the first air toxic regulations in state history. The rules would attempt to minimize harmful health effects caused by exposure to hundreds of dangerous chemicals like hexavalent chromium, arsenic and formaldehyde.

EQC, which sets policy for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), is expected to take final action on the rules in November.

The program will not affect other pollutants like smog, sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide which already are regulated by the federal government.

EQC appointed a seven-member expert advisory panel, mostly from other states, to help determine how much of each individual toxic pollutant is safe to breathe. The panel includes:

  • Dr. Amy Padula, University of California, San Francisco
  • Dr. John Vandenberg, US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • Dr. John Budroe, California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA)
  • Dr. Steven Gilbert, University of Washington
  • Dr. Perry Hystad, Oregon State University.
  • Dr. Kathryn Kelly, Delta Toxicology (at-large)
  • Dr. Neeraja Erraguntla, American Chem. Council (at-large)

One of the panelists, Dr. Vandenberg, is director of EPA’s Human Health Risk Assessment program, which developed the agency’s Integrated Risk Identification System (IRIS) program that helps identify cancer and non-cancer risks linked to exposure to toxic chemicals.

IRIS is a tool for deciding what regulatory actions, if any, are needed to protect public health. Like many states, Oregon relies on IRIS for setting health benchmarks for toxic exposures.

The advisory panel will consult IRIS and other information sources as it evaluates risks associated with breathing 260 toxic substances found in Oregon’s air. CAO will also require polluters to report their usage of 600 chemicals. Nevertheless, thousands of other widely used chemicals will likely fall through the cracks. In the US, 8,707 chemicals are produced at annual volumes of 25,000 pounds or greater, EPA reported in 2016.

Children exposed multiple times with each breath.

At the July 12 hearing, people strongly urged EQC to adopt rules to minimize the exposure of children to dangerous chemicals because they can damage developing lungs, brains and other vital functions possibly for a lifetime.

“If we take into consideration exposure of the most vulnerable people, the children, we will come up with rules that are protective of all of us.” -- Jody Bleyle of Portland.

“If we take into consideration exposure of the most vulnerable people, the children, we will come up with rules that are protective of all of us,” said Jody Bleyle of Portland.

Alicia Cohen of Portland turned to basic physiology to explain why air pollution hits children especially hard. “Their lung capacity is much smaller,” she said. “They are therefore exposed multiple times for every breath.”

“I hope that will lead us to consider levels that are sensitive to the smallest people, whose bodies and brains are growing and will be permanently impacted by the toxics they ingest,” Cohen continued.

Scientific research backs them up. Last December, UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) published “Danger in the Air,” which links toxic air with a variety of conditions affecting a child’s respiratory system, including pneumonia, asthma and bronchitis. Respiratory conditions can force children to miss school and cause long-lasting damage to their health and wellbeing.

While the respiratory system is often the first body part harmed by toxic air exposures, the developing brain may face more lasting damage. While symptoms of respiratory disease can be addressed with medication, brain damage caused by exposure to neurotoxins can be much harder if not impossible to treat.

“The harmful effects of air pollution on the developing brain are likely to manifest throughout children’s lives, limiting their ability to fulfill their potential, in turn fueling intergenerational cycles of disadvantage,” the UNICEF report said.

Some toxic chemicals are more dangerous to children than others. Here are a few to watch for during EQC’s deliberations:

Naphthalene, a pollutant often found in Oregon’s air, threatens respiratory health at levels above 3.0 micrograms per cubic meter, according to IRIS (a benchmark adopted by the DEQ).  But some experts, including Dr. James Dahlgren, a California toxicologist, say levels of naphthalene as low as 0.4 micrograms per cubic meter can be dangerous.

People can readily identify naphthalene in the air from the mothballs odor. If people can smell naphthalene, and if they are suffering from headaches, dizziness or skin rashes, they may be inhaling a dangerous dose, Dr. Dahlgren says.

In interviews with Cascadia Times, several residents of The Dalles claim they have been sickened by the levels of naphthalene found throughout the city. DEQ monitoring in 2017 found naphthalene levels in The Dalles ranged from 0.4 to 2.6 micrograms per cubic meter, depending on the distance from a creosote plant located near downtown.

EPA recently launched an IRIS review of health risks associated with the inhalation of naphthalene. A 30-day comment period on the review ends Aug 6.

The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) says African-American children are especially vulnerable to naphthalene.

“African-American children appear to be uniquely susceptible to acute exposure effects,” ATSDR said in 2014 in a Public Health Assessment.

Lead. A 2005 international study reported children exposed to lead have substantial intellectual impairments, even when they are exposed at levels well below what the EPA currently considers harmful.

EPA determined 0.15 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air is safe to breathe, a benchmark that DEQ has adopted.

Dr. Bruce Lanphear, director of the Children's Environmental Health Center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, is among many scientists who believe there is no safe level for lead in the air.

“Because there is no known safe level of lead exposure,” he testified before a US Senate committee in 2007, “exposure to lead below these existing standards should not be considered safe.”

“Because there is no known safe level of lead exposure,” he testified before a US Senate committee in 2007, “exposure to lead below these existing standards should not be considered safe.” Lanphear was an author of the 2005 study.

"The study indicates there is no threshold for the adverse consequences of children's exposure to lead," Dr. Lanphear said.

Manganese. Manganese which has also been found to disrupt brain functions, is an essential nutrient in the diet. But the line between “just enough” manganese and “too much” is blurry.

Breathing dust particles containing manganese, which is also known by its atomic symbol Mn, can pose special problems for the developing brain.

Dr. Matthew Brodsky, a neurologist at Oregon Health Sciences University, says manganese can have irreversible toxic effects on brain tissue and in particular to an area near the center of the brain called the globus pallidus. If the globus pallidus is damaged, he said, it can cause movement disorders.

A study published in 2018 by the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, showed manganese can reduce the connectivity between the right globus pallidus and prefrontal cortex, causing lasting cognitive damage.

In 2016, University of Minnesota researchers said more information on manganese exposure to fetuses and infants “is urgently needed given their unique vulnerability to excessive Mn (manganese).” The Minnesota researchers said consistent guidelines for safe levels of manganese exposure are lacking.

“The developing human brain is uniquely vulnerable to exposure to environmental toxicants such as Mn, and prenatal Mn exposure has been associated with changes in brain areas involved in emotion processing and regulation,” the study said.

In 2013, a Korean study found that excessive manganese exposure in children is associated with lower scores of thinking, reading and calculation.

 
 

Unhealthy levels of manganese can be found in Northwest Portland’s air, including the northern part of the Pearl Neighborhood, according to this 2017 DEQ air modelling map. The manganese hot spot is centered around two factories that emit manganese, ESCO, a steel foundry, and a Gunderson Inc., plant that manufactures railcars.

The orange color in the map shows where airborne manganese concentrations are as much as five times higher than a health benchmark for both cancer and non-cancer effects.

 Jessica Rojas of Northeast Coalition of Neighbors

Jessica Rojas of Northeast Coalition of Neighbors

Other toxics pollutants commonly found in Oregon that are toxic to a child’s developing brain include trichloroethylene (TCE), arsenic and toluene.

DEQ has found a TCE hot spot in Lebanon, Ore., where an Entek battery factory emits up to 127.0 tons of TCE per year according to a DEQ report. This is the same company that won a gag order in 2017 preventing the DEQ from notifying the public of risks associated from breathing its TCE emissions.

In addition to safeguarding the children, some speakers urged EQC to regulate all polluters evenly. Jessica Rojas of Portland’s Northeast Coalition of Neighbors said Cleaner Air Oregon's proposed rules would allow existing businesses to emit more toxic pollution than new ones.

"Why don’t we don’t do the best that we can to help existing industries start reducing their cancer pollution risk in our communities?"
--Jessica Rojas, Northeast Coalition of Neighbors

“I want to request you take stronger consideration for existing facilities,” she said. “I like what you are doing for the new facilities in reducing cancer risk, but I don’t see a lot of new facilities popping up in our neighborhood. So why don’t we don’t do the best that we can to help existing industries start reducing their cancer pollution risk in our communities?”

At a second public hearing held Aug. 1 in Eugene, speakers also urged EQC to take care of children first.

“A child exposed to air toxics and small particulate is more likely to develop smaller lungs and reduced lung function, which may have lifelong impacts to the quality of that person’s life,” said Lisa Arkin of the advocacy group Beyond Toxics. “Furthermore, if a fetus or child is exposed to one or more air toxic chemicals during a critical window of development, the possibility of life-long disabilities should not be underestimated.”

Written comments on Cleaner Air Oregon’s draft rules must be submitted to DEQ by 4 p.m., Aug. 6, 2018.

 

TAKE ACTION

Comment on Cleaner Air Oregon’s draft rules. Comments are due by 4 pm on Aug. 6.

Comment on EPA’s proposal to re-assess the toxicity of naphthalene. Comments are due Aug. 6.

 

Paul Kobestein is editor of Cascadia Times, Jessica Applegate is managing editor and contributed to this article.