Complaints triggered study
By Neita Cecil
The first-ever state air quality testing now being done to evaluate naphthalene emissions from the AmeriTies tie plant was triggered by a group of complaints in early 2015.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s odor nuisance strategy was triggered on Feb. 1 last year when 10 complaints, all from different addresses, were lodged within 60 days.
In all of 2015, there were 250 complaints from unique addresses, said Greg Svelund, a spokesman for the DEQ.
And they keep coming. “We had almost a dozen just yesterday alone,” he said Thursday.
Naphthalene is an odorous, toxic ingredient in the creosote used by the tie plant to treat railroad ties to prevent decay. (See related story.)
The state does not just take the word of complainants. Every few months, a pair of DEQ employees visit the same 14 locations in The Dalles and have a sniff for themselves to mark the strength, duration and offensiveness of odors.
They attend odor smell school, and have to demonstrate enough sensitivity to be able to rate any smell they detect on a scale from one to five.
After passing the one-day odor school, they start off with five varying strengths of a chemical that smells kind of like a Magic Marker.
They put each one in a beaker and put a lid on it, then head out for The Dalles.
Once there, they spend about two and a half hours testing. “There is no machines we can use to do this so we have to employ people,” he said. “This is as scientific as we can make it.”
They not only get a whiff, but they also note the temperature, wind and humidity. That test is only part of the calculus the state does as it assesses complaints.
Svelund talks to many of the complainants himself, sometimes on a daily basis.
One of the hardest concepts to get across is the difference between how much naphthalene represents an acute risk (200 micrograms per cubic meter) vs. the tiny amount (.03 micrograms per cubic meter) that, with constant exposure over an entire lifetime, represents enough long-term risk to cause one case of cancer per one million people.
“It’s really hard for people to comprehend the difference between short term and long term, especially when kids are involved, It’s just really hard,” Svelund said.
“The concerns and the odors themselves are very real for people,” he said.
“There are personal sensitivities not only to naphthalene but to any odor, and there’s real health effects to that,” Svelund said.“You can get headaches, and you can get scratchy nose and scratchy mouth, and it doesn’t matter what the odor is, in this case it happens to be naphthalene.”
He added, “There’s no doubt that this happens, and that makes this really hard.”
Of the citizens calling with complaints, he said, “For the most part they’re very reasonable and just concerned people and they’ve really done a lot to try to understand this facility and our role in it.”
David Farrer, a toxicologist with the Oregon Health Authority, said naphthalene starts as a liquid but wants to be a gas, so it evaporates.
Heat increases the rate that it evaporates. “That’s one of the reasons in hot weather that off gassing is more of an issue because the heat is speeding that up.”
Naphthalene is the main ingredient in mothballs, and is the reason mothballs are illegal in most states anymore, he said.
Much of what is known about the acute toxic effects of naphthalene is from kids swallowing mothballs or infants who are swaddled in blankets that were stored with mothballs.
Sometimes, adults simply used an excess of mothballs in their home and poisoned themselves. The main illness associated with naphthalene toxicity is hemolytic anemia.
Initial air quality testing of naphthalene levels from the AmeritTies plant were far from posing immediate health risks, but are concerning for long-term health, officials say...