Air is essential to human life. The first breath heralds the beginning of an infant’s life while the last breath marks the end of an individual’s sojourn on this planet. It is now a common medical practice to teach people to focus on their breath to calm anxiety, depression and stress.

In short, the air we breathe promotes health and healing.

But what happens when this essential component of life becomes contaminated by chemicals and metals that trigger respiratory problems; when it becomes tainted with carcinogens and other toxic substances; when it becomes polluted with toxins known to lower IQs and contribute to learning and behavioral problems including ADHD, conduct disorder and antisocial behaviors?

This is the quandary now facing Washington County residents, for recent studies have found air toxics in Hillsboro and the surrounding area to be as much as 120 times above benchmark levels.

As reported by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, we now know that outdoor air pollution is not only a major risk to health in general, but also a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths.

Washington County takes pride in the “economic engine” approach to development, especially when rationalizing tax breaks to Intel and other corporate global entities. But what exactly does this phrase mean?

The term “engine” brings forth a number of connotations, foremost among them the association with fossil fuel-dependent transportation vehicles that are linked with global warming. And what about the term “economic” — a word associated with money, financial systems, banks, etc.? This combination of words — economic and engine — evokes the image of a “money-making machine.”

Sadly, it is this glorification of machines over the greater good that has become one of the highest goals toward which many in Washington County strive.

Those who subscribe to this model often expect to be absolved from environmental responsibility in a misguided belief that job creation and generating profits should take precedence over clean air and water as well as the health and well-being of the community.

But why this obsessive striving to identify with an engine, a material object? After all, engines and machines are devoid of the capacity to think, reflect, feel, intuit and convey emotions. Engines cannot and do not express compassion, sympathy, empathy or love.

In the “economic engine” model, the degree to which an individual, business or corporation emulates an inanimate machine has been elevated to the highest good.

In the process, aspirations such as promoting educational excellence, environmental sustainability, and caring for vulnerable populations has become secondary to attaining the coveted money-making machine status.

A prime example of the “economic engine” model run amuck is the Hillsboro Airport. This airport, with its preponderance of pilot training activity in aircraft that use leaded fuel, is the largest facility source of lead emissions in the entire state.

But lead is by no means the only toxin spewed by these aircraft. Indeed, the Hillsboro Airport is also the largest facility source of a host of other pollutants including, but not limited to, particulate matter, acrolein, butadiene, and carbon monoxide. The users of this airport feel entitled to spew these known toxins on the entire community.

Yet in the more than 48 years the Port of Portland has owned and operated this facility, it has never generated a profit and thus remains chronically reliant on public subsidies.

In the final analysis, the “economic engine” imagery is bereft of heart and soul.

As such, it represents an archaic, outmoded paradigm — one that poses a threat to the entire community. To remedy this imbalance, it will be necessary to embrace new ideals that promote humane values and a firm commitment to restore and prioritize environmental protection as well as the health and well-being of impacted residents.

Miki Barnes is president of Oregon Aviation Watch, a nonprofit organization based in Banks that is focused on eliminating adverse impacts from aviation activity.

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