Portland’s Dirty Little Secret by Jacob Sherman

 portlands-air-is-toxicPhoto courtesy of Neighbors for Clean Air

Given how “environmentally-friendly” and “green” our city is reputed to be, you might find it hard to believe that Portland has a serious air quality problem — but it’s true. In August 2013, a national study named Precision Castparts Corporation (PCC) as the nation’s #1 toxic polluter due to the quantity of the company’s emissions, the toxicity of the pollutants, and the proximity of these emissions to the people in neighborhoods around them; neighborhoods like those in SE Portland. From cobalt to nickel and chromium to manganese, the company emits a toxic soup of carcinogens and neurotoxins. As a result of industrial pollution and that the fact that Oregon is becoming a dumping ground for dirty diesel engines that are now outlawed in California and Washington, many of our local schools have some of the most dangerous outdoor air quality in the entire nation.

According to USA Today’s special report on “The Smokestack Effect: Toxic Air and America’s Schools,” many of Portland’s schools suffer from extremely unhealthy air quality. For example:

  • Ardenwald ES – Worst 3 percentile in the nation (only 2,858 of 127,809 schools have   worse air)
  • Duniway ES – Worst 3rd percentile (only 3,021 schools have worse air)
  • Lane MS – Worst 9th percentile (only 11,015 schools have worse air)
  • Holy Family – Worst 10th percentile (only 11,687 schools have worse air)
  • Lewis ES – Worst 11th percentile (only 12,790 schools have worse air)
  • Whitman ES – Worst 13th percentile (only 15,191 schools have worse air)
  • Woodstock ES – Worst 13th percentile (only 15,776 schools have worse air)
  • Arleta ES – Worst 13th percentile (only 16,065 schools have worse air)
  • Creston ES – Worst 14th percentile (only 16,518 schools have worse air)
  • Marysville ES – Worst 17th percentile (only 20,618 schools have worse air)
  • Lents ES – Worst 22nd percentile (only 27, 631 schools have worse air)

Many people find these statistic very concerning, particularly when you realize that these schools act as indicators for the air quality in the neighborhoods around them. These rankings are our canaries in the coal mine. Importantly, we are not talking about local air pollution as if it impacts abstract polar bears in the artic. Industrial pollution and dirty diesel emissions are negatively impacting the health of our children and our communities.

ctmap7sm5-1024x590Copyright 2010 by Cascadia Times

Take diesel for example. As clean air advocate, Mary Peveto, explains, “Diesel is particularly problematic because its ultra-fine particles can travel deep into the lungs and can even pass from the lungs into the bloodstream. Long-term exposure to diesel emissions is linked to both lung and bladder cancer. Children are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of diesel pollution because their lungs are still developing and they breathe, on average, 50 percent more air per pound of body weight than do adults.” This is made even more urgent by a 2013 study in which researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health
found that diesel particulates in the air significantly increased the risk of having a child with autism. Oregon already has the second-highest rate of autism among students in the country, with its average double the national.

Three things that you can do

Number 1: Learn more about Oregon’s toxic air and how everyday citizens can help clean it up. The local air-quality advocacy group Neighbors for Clean Air (NCA) has put together useful resources to learn about the Clean Air Act
and other enforcement strategies, and USA Today’s Smokestack Effect report offers specific information about air pollution at local schools. Also, don’t forget to sign-up for NCA’s monthly newsletter to stay updated about local issues and to find out about meetings with experts or industry representatives, legislative advocacy trainings, or how to organize the community.

Benjamin Brink/The Oregonian

Number Two: After learning more about our air quality problems, take action. You can sign this petition
urging Governor Kitzhaber to stop Oregon from being the dumping ground of dirty diesel engines, and then ask a friend to sign it too. You can also talk with your neighbors about “Portland’s dirty little secret,” and ask your local neighborhood association or parent-teacher association to encourage elected officials to address the issue. You can write your state representative and tell them about your concerns and why clean air matters to you and your family. (If you don’t know who your state representative is, click here to find out.)

Number Three: Join the other everyday citizens who are working together to make a difference. In fact, you can join the Brentwood-Darlington Neighborhood Association from 6:30-8pm on Thursday, April 10th, 2014, to meet with representatives from Precision Castparts Corporation, which is hosting an open-house at the Brentwood-Darlington Community Center (7211 SE 62nd Ave, Portland, OR 97206). Citizens are invited to ask the company questions, and talk about things that the community cares about. (Like the fact that Portland is the home to nation’s #1 polluter!)

Actually, there is a fourth thing to do: Please remember that it takes time to build a community garden or to change the law, and that it only it happens when dedicated people rally around a cause. For example, our neighborhood recently finished building a new community garden at Errol Heights Park, but it took a little over two years of time, patience, and perseverance. In a very real way, the Clean Air Act became law because of the grassroots advocacy and hard work that happened all around the country before, during, and after the original Earth Day in 1970. When everyday people band together, we can successfully advocate for traffic improvements and to help the Belmont Goats relocate to Outer SE or to build a new grange at Zenger Farms. But none of this is very surprising. After all, as the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead once remarked, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”


Illustration Above courtesy of http://art.zerflin.com 

That said, I hope you will do #1 and #2, and I look forward to seeing you at #3 and talking with you more about #4.

Jacob Sherman is the current chairman of the Brentwood-Darlington Neighborhood Association, where, amongst other things, he has helped create a community garden, successfully advocated for the installation of traffic calming measures, and increased community-engagement. A fifth generation Portlander, Jacob enjoys backpacking, gardening, running, and playing board games with his wife, son, and (soon to be) newborn baby… alright, the baby doesn’t play board games. Not yet, anyway!



  1. First of all, the Brentwood Darlington newsletter is so well organized and so visually appealing I always look forward to getting it. Secondly, the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Assn. is battling City Hall Thursday April 10th at 2:00 PM over whether a developer has the right to get a zone change in order to demolish a mid-century modern house, split the lot it sits on, and then build two homes that will cost twice as much. The house targetted for demolition is structurally sound and simply needs a little updating. A hearings officer decided against us in February, and we are appealing that decision. Please come support our efforts. All eastside neighborhoods from Sellwood to Beaumont-Wilshire have been unfairly hit with this “Demolition for Dollars.” ( We prefer not to use the word “infill” as that implies building on
    an empty lot.) We hope to see you at City Hall! Kimberly Koehler, ENA( We are attending the Clean Air meeting.)

  2. I see that you used my illustration on your page, I’m flattered!

    While I don’t mind you using my image at all; it’s important to me to have the image credited with the author; myself. I make a living by selling the work I do. :)

    It’s part of a series of quotes I did on famous people. You can see more about the series here (and you can repost them if you like): http://art.zerflin.com

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