by Dr. Elissa Mendenhall, ND
Ever since the Portland Mercury broke the news in early February of toxic levels of arsenic and cadmium in the air around the Bullseye Glass factory (at 21st Ave just south of Powell Blvd), there has been an amazing outpouring of alarming information about toxic effects, sick neighbors, and political cover-ups. It could almost be a Marvel comic. Whistleblower journalist Daniel Forbes interviewed the moss superhero, US Forest Service worker Geoffrey Donovan, about his findings that bioindicator moss in Powell Park showed alarmingly high levels of arsenic and cadmium. What has come forth since then is a cadre of villains thought to be allies, environmental turncoats, and political and economic corruption.
New information has been emerging daily about the air quality in Portland. Nearby Abernathy Elementary School, once an environmentally-focused school, was reported to have one of the worst air qualities in the United States. Nearby Cleveland High School has been found to have alarmingly high levels of lead and cadmium in its soil. After some investigation, we also learned that the DEQ gave carte-blanche to smaller companies like Bullseye Glass regarding the use of toxic substances in their art-glass manufacturing in 2008, let them know that they did not need to use air filters in manufacturing, and essentially deregulated them. The DEQ stopped monitoring their facility within a couple of years after that. Around that time, Bullseye was putting 2.7 tons of arsenic in to the local neighborhood’s air every year.
There’s a lot more to the political story. It has become such an issue that international leader in air-quality activism Erin Brockovich has recently decided to join the environmental law firm Weitz & Luxenbergto work on the air quality issues in Portland. More information can be found on the East Portland Air Coalition’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/448557395350732
What this means to the people affected, including the folks up in the other air quality hotspot in Northeast Portland, is unclear. Some things we know about arsenic and cadmium exposure:
- Effects happen over a lifetime at these levels of exposure.
- They increase the risk for kidney disease and many kinds of cancer.
- Symptoms with low-level chronic exposure like this don’t even manifest for ten years.
Here’s some info from my post a couple of weeks back:
“Cadmium in high doses can cause vomiting and nausea. In lower doses, it increases cancer risk, kidney disease, and bone fragility. On the psych side, cadmium is correlated with schizophrenia and increased pessimism. Without intervention, the biological half-life of cadmium in humans exceeds 20 years, meaning it essentially will never fully leave the body of its own accord. Other chronic manifestations associated with cadmium: high blood pressure, weight loss, anemia, emphysema and pulmonary fibrosis, atherosclerosis contributing to heart attacks, back pain from softening of bones, and peripheral neuropathy (numbness and tingling).”
Arsenic has a low threshold of toxicity. A little goes a long way. It is highly neurotoxic. It is most highly associated with increased cancer risk with long-term exposures. The association between chronic arsenic exposure and cancer is strongest for skin, lung, and bladder cancer. Arsenic also affects the kidneys, causes liver problems, and cardiovascular problems. It also causes peripheral neuropathy, and may look a lot like Guillain-Barre Syndrome. In terms of mental health, it is correlated with depression and developmental disabilities. It is also associated with poor cognitive performance and disturbances in visual perception, psychomotor speed, attention, speech and memory.
I have heard a number of people in affected neighborhoods report chronic headaches associated with the air quality.
What can we do?
First piece to consider is that it is important to be well-informed about the events and your options, but this health crisis is not urgent in nature. Whether you get tested now or a month from now will likely not affect your health significantly, as long as you do eventually get evaluated and treated. This is in part because both glass factories have stopped using arsenic, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium in their production. For the most part, the damage has already been done.
No one is clear about the severity of the health risks with these levels of exposure. Information I’ve read seems to be quite contradictory on this point. Once we have more data about what kinds of levels are being found in children, adults, and soil of affected neighborhoods, we will have better answers about the real health risks to individuals and to the neighborhoods in general.
You can get tested. There are a number of options for getting tested. Types of recommended testing depend on a number of factors: which toxin is being checked, and how long it has been since exposure stopped. Deciding which testing is best for your situation might be best discussed with a health care provider. However, many providers have found conflicting information about testing, and have little experience with testing for these kinds of exposures. It may help to schedule a visit with your own information.
The Department of Health is currently recommending urine spot testing. This simply means they will collect urine at the visit and submit that sample for testing. The shortcomings of urine spot testing are:
1. Arsenic has a half-life of 18 hours in the body, meaning that it may not show up in the urine at all if exposure has stopped more than 5 days prior.
2. Excretion of toxins may vary throughout the day and get missed in one single sample of urine.
If a urine spot is negative, it is worth considering additional testing to get an accurate read of exposure.
It appears that a number of people have been found to have negative urine testing but positive serum (blood) testing. Therefore it is worth considering also doing a serum test.
Because of the short half-life of arsenic, to get an accurate assessment of prior exposure, hair testing is likely the best option. Hair testing is considered to have more interfering factors, and fewer labs offer it, but does show exposure over months and years. One laboratory I work with is Doctor’s Data for hair analysis. One Center for Disease Control website does endorse hair testing for arsenic analysis.
Chromium is another beast entirely. I haven’t found a routine lab offering a test that looks specifically at hexavalent (toxic) chromium. This is important because all human bodies have chromium nutrient. It’s an essential nutrient in the trivalent (nontoxic) form. So, it’s important that the test be able to differentiate between the normal chromium and the toxic type of chromium, especially if you take multivitamins or minerals that contain chromium. Unfortunately, that test is not readily commercially available. One company that appears to offer the test is www.anylabtestnow.com. The advantage is that it can be directly ordered through a website. The disadvantages are its cost and the lack of insurance coverage for the test, if ordered directly through a website and not through a provider.
As for insurance coverage for this testing – we really don’t know. If you are concerned, you can call the insurance company directly and provide the CPT (procedure) code and the ICD-10 (diagnosis) code to see if they will cover it.
If you’re a gardener, you may have heard advice from the Oregon Health Authority to stop gardening. This is unnecessary. Gardening provides a number of health benefits including improved nutrition and exercise. It is important, however, to get your soil tested for toxic metals. There are a number of organizations that offer this service. One I can recommend is a chapter of Lead Safe America located in Sellwood for general screening (http://leadsafeamerica.org). This is run by a mother whose family was adversely affected by toxic metal exposure. If you do find that you have elevated levels, consider remediation, including replacing soil, or construction of raised beds and importing new soil.
Some plants you should avoid eating if there are toxic levels found in your garden include kale (as it absorbs toxins), and root vegetables. However, these same plants can be used to assist in remediating soil, if they are discarded instead of being consumed. This helpful website gives more information about that approach. http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-08-11/using-plants-to-clean-contaminated-soil
How to get better? If you’re found to have elevated levels of arsenic, lead, chromium, or cadmium, there are steps that you should take. If it’s mild, consider long-term support with chelating foods. Such foods include cilantro, brassicas (like kale, broccoli, and cabbage), pectin and foods that contain fruit pectin, and garlic. Try increasing these foods in your diet and retest in six months to make sure your levels are decreasing.
At moderate levels of toxicity, you might want to consider oral chelation protocols. These are typically non-invasive with limited side effects, but should be supervised by a physician to monitor for poor response, proper detoxification, and side effects to the oral protocols.
Some substances used in oral chelation include DMSA (Dimercaptosuccinic acid) and NAC (N-acetyl cysteine.)
If levels of toxins in the body are markedly elevated, or there are acute medical complications form the exposure, it may be necessary to have the metals chelated using an intravenous chelation protocol. This is a procedure that is supervised by a medical specialist.
More information about the situation in Portland is coming forth every day. I will keep the Amenda Facebook page updated with new health information. Another good resource for daily information is the aforementioned Facebook page called “Eastside Portland Air Coalition (Inner SE/NE Air Quality)”. If you’re interested in staying informed on the political side of this issue, staying abreast of the most current information, or getting involved, this is an excellent resource.