Catholic families and organizations in Southeast and North Portland are among those tracking the implications of testing that show their neighborhoods have heavy metals in the air, soil and even tree moss around them.

City tests show there is no serious immediate danger, but agencies are being cautious.

Catholic Charities is close to the Bullseye Glass toxic zone. In addition to offices, Catholic Charities has scores of low-cost housing units in the area south of Cleveland High School.

“Given what’s been reported, we have concerns about the impacts of this on our residents and staff,” says James Howell, director of development for Catholic Charities. “We are hopeful that the sources of the toxins have been shut down, but we will continue to closely monitor the situation, attend community meetings, and support those who reside and work in the affected area.” 

While state regulators knew at least since 2004 that Portland's air was polluted with hazardous heavy metals — cadmium, arsenic, chromium and others — the source of the pollution wasn’t known.

Then, in 2012, a couple of U.S. Forest Service scientists decided to test moss around the city for pollution levels. Moss absorbs what's in the air and provides a localized record of pollution. Because the moss doesn’t have roots, any toxins found in it come from the air and rain, not the soil. The scientists were looking for varying levels of hydrocarbon pollution from cars and wood smoke. They were surprised to also discover hotspots of heavy metals, which suspiciously surrounded at least four glass manufacturers.

That’s how the scientists came across the carcinogenic zones and discovered that the art glass manufacturers seemed to be implicated. Arsenic, chromium and cadmium are added to silica sand to make colored glass.

The Forest Service scientists told the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality about their findings last summer, in 2015.

Oregon’s regulators revealed the information eight months later, on Feb. 3. Arsenic exists at 159 times the state benchmark for healthy air near Bullseye Glass, one suspected source of the heavy metal toxins, in Southeast Portland. Cadmium is 49 times higher than the health benchmark.

Harold Treinen, a parishioner at St. Philip Neri, the closest church to Bullseye, is concerned especially about the heavy metal’s effect on schools. “Like the one my grandson attends,” he said.

Florence Katrena, an octogenarian parishioner, has lived in the area her entire life. She’s taking the news in stride, waiting to see what happens. “It would be a shame if they knew about this but didn’t say anything to people,” she said.

Bullseye sent a letter to Rep. Jessica Vega Pedersen, D-Portland, saying it will "stop using arsenic indefinitely" in its manufacturing process. The company also indicated it would voluntarily interrupt or halt its use of cadmium and the very toxic chromium. Vega Pedersen chairs the House Committee on Energy and Environment in Salem.

State regulators say voluntary compliance is all that is possible, because the rules are federal. They only apply to large manufacturers — no matter the location, in a city neighborhood filled with children or in an industrial park, with no nearby homes.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden says the federal Environmental Protection Agency is revising rules that allowed the contamination.

Treinen, at St. Philip Neri, thinks the answer lies in better regulations. “There’s a general idea that people don’t like to be regulated,” he said. “But responsible regulation is really needed to protect the environment and our quality of life.”

Bullseye Glass began manufacturing glass in the Southeast Portland location 42 years. Uroboros, a glass manufacturer in Northeast Portland, has used cadmium for 35 years. It stopped using arsenic 20 years ago. Uroboros also suspended using cadmium last month.

Officials are taking soil samples to better assess the risk, but have advised the 10,000-some people living within a half mile of Bullseye not to eat vegetables from their gardens.