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City, county and PSU partner on toxic air research

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Responding to public concerns about potentially dangerous metals found in Portland's air, leaders from the city, Multnomah County and Portland State University have launched a research project to learn more about their sources and distribution patterns.

The $125,000 study was announced Wednesday afternoon at a press conference that included Mayor Charlie Hales, County Chair Deborah Kafoury, and former Metro Councilor Robert Liberty, who is now director of the PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions.

The funds will be used to purchase specialized X-Ray fluorescence analysis equipment for the project. PSU environmental studies professor Linda George will work with community groups and local, state, and federal agencies to set up six different research sites of approximately 1-square-mile each across the Portland metro area to sample for metals. She will be assisted by faculty colleagues and students.

The results will help inform policy makers, public health agencies, and concerned neighbors about toxic metals air pollution.

The study is welcomed by Mary Peveto, founder of community-based Neighbors for Clean Air, an advocacy group that has complained about the quality of Portland's air for many years. She said collecting such information is long overdue, but warned that risks are not well understood.

"Our current level of understanding what defines risk still needs to be explored," said Peveto, who also attended the press conference. "Nothing is definitive at this time."

“The quality of the air we breathe is critical for all Portlanders,” said city Commissioner Steve Novick, who also appeared at the press conference and sponsored the $31,250 appropriation request approved by the City Council on Wednesday. “PSU’s research will provide the kind of real-time, neighborhood-level analysis that is important for policymakers to consider as we move forward with future decisions.”

Initial results should be available in early 2017 and will include maps of of pollution hot spots.

“Current air quality data from PSU will be vital to our public health agencies,” The county is pleased to be able to partner with the Institute for Sustainable Solutions to help address our residents’ concerns about our air quality,” said Kafoury, who also serves as head of the county Board of Health. The country is contributing another $31,250.

“Providing this kind of policy-relevant research is exactly the right role for PSU, an institution dedicated to serving its community,” said Liberty, whose ISS is contributing $62,500 to the study. “I’m pleased that ISS has the means to react quickly and that our partners at the City of Portland and Multnomah County were able to join us in making this investment in our understanding of urban air quality.”

Research activities will include:

• Sampling of air,soil, moss, and, potentially, indoor surfaces for metals.

• Conducting monitoring to estimate emission levels.

• A statistical analysis of the variation of pollutants to explore the potential of multiple sources affecting an individual location.

Also attending the press conference was Multnomah County Commissioner Jules Bailey, who helped organize the initial public forums on the pollution when it was first revealed in February.

The study is beginning as Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has promised to increase the enforcement powers of the state Department of Environmental Quality. The DEQ has been heavily criticized since two toxic hot spots were identified in Portland though a study of moss on trees conducted by the U.S. Forest Service. Department officials admitted they had been aware of such hot spots in Portland for years but had not tracked down their sources.

Some local officials and candidates for Portland mayor have talked about forming a Regional Air Quality Authority to take over pollution monitoring and enforcement responsibilities from the DEQ. No measures to do that have yet been introduced at city or county levels, however.