Cancer, birth defects, asthma: Your neighborhood is impacting your health

Cancer, birth defects, asthma: Your neighborhood is impacting your health »Play Video
Watch Part One of this story by clicking the "Play Video" button above. Watch Part Two at the end of this story.

PORTLAND, Ore. – Mary Peveto didn’t want to be an activist.

But her daughter couldn’t stop coughing.

And Peveto knew why.

And nobody was doing anything about it.

So it was that the Portland woman became a clean-air crusader after she discovered in 2009 that Chapman Elementary School in N.W. Portland – her daughter’s school – ranked in the bottom two percent of U.S. schools for air quality.

It sent her down a research rabbit-hole that’s defined much of her life since. Portland's air was much worse than she thought - and that it varies wildly from neighorhood to neighborhood.

"I would have never believed we were nationally ranked on a national scale,” Peveto said. “People have no idea here. People think that we have clean air.”

Peveto quickly learned Portland has a problem with “toxics” – pollutants known or suspected to cause cancer and other serious health problems.

The threat can vary significantly by neighborhood. In Peveto’s case, many of the air toxics in her neighborhood could be traced back to the Esco metals plant two blocks from Chapman Elementary.

Information mapped out by the EPA shows the cancer risk in some neighborhoods is five times or more higher than others.

Boise, Downtown, Northwest, Corbett and parts of Kerns, Buckman, Lloyd and Eliot have cancer rates greater than 150 per million.

That’s five times higher than Sheridan, Cannon Beach, Hood River and many other towns that have rates lower than 30 per million, and much higher even than Hillsboro, Oregon City and West Linn’s 50-75 case per million.  

LEARN MORE: The EPA's interactive mapping system lets you figure out the risks and potential contributing factors in your neighborhood.

“People should be aware,” said regional DEQ administrator Nina DeConcini. “That's what this is about.  It's about increasing awareness."

The problem holds special significance for Peveto because her daughter, Lucia, has asthma. She decided to spearhead a non-profit organization called Neighbors for Clean Air.

"This is really coming home,” she said. “I mean when your kids can't breathe, this is terrible. What a terrible feeling. All I could think of was, what about all the parents who don't have the access to great health care?

“The amount of care you have to take with your children when they can't breathe and the treatment and the things that you have to do, it's so deep."

DEQ is the federal agency in charge of enforcing clean-air laws. It sets enforceable industry standards for businesses, but doesn’t do so for some of the most potent toxics found in Portland’s air: Diesel, gas and smoke from wood stoves.

How thick are the chemicals in Portland’s air?

“In some cases, it's a lot,” DeConcini said. “For something like benzene, which is in gasoline, it's everywhere.

“People that live closer to a facility, will very likely feel the effects of something closer to that. There's no question about that."

Though the federal government doesn’t set standards for air toxics, DEQ in Oregon established health-based benchmarks of its own. In Multnomah County, 15 air toxics are above those benchmarks.

And yes, that is a problem.

EPA data show diesel fumes, for instance, contributed to 250 deaths in Oregon last year. That’s more than the combined number of people who were murdered or died from drunk driving.

“We don't know at any given time, what is in the air we're breathing,” Peveto said. “I remember thinking to myself - that's it! Our air pollution problem is all legal.”

The EPA’s national air toxics assessment found Oregon has the third-largest population at risk of cancer due to air pollution. Only California and New York are worse.

Cancer isn’t the only problem. High asthma rates are also spread throughout the region.

Peveto says the state’s monitoring approach masks the problem. It measures the area’s average for a three-county area, rather than broken down by neighborhood.

What you’re breathing in Laurelhurst isn’t what you’re breathing in Lake Oswego.

“We’re getting a disproportionate share of what regionally doesn't look like it's a very big problem, but it's a huge part of our problem,” she said.

Regionally, the numbers are mostly fine. By neighborhood though, things can get quite bad.

“The air that you breath is hyper-local,” Peveto said.

GET INVOLVED: Neighbors for Clean Air will host a clean-air happy hour Wednesday, screen a film at  PSU THursday and hold an air-quality advocacy workshop Saturday. VIsit their website to contact them for details.

“If you live next to the industrial sanctuary, next to Precision Castparts - named the No. 1 polluter in America - if you live above Swan Island, if you live in north Portland that's surrounded by three sides by industry - we're getting a disproportionate share of what regionally doesn't look like it's a very big problem.”

The Neighbors for Clean Air drew up a good-neighborhood agreement with Esco. The company agreed to new pollution controls that go beyond what’s required by the law.

DEQ is developing strategies to deal with the area’s worst toxic exposures.

But Peveto said her group’s work is nowhere near done.

“I know we can do better,” she said.


 Part One of Chelsea Kopta's investigation is at the top of this story. Watch Part Two below: