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Air Quality Report Says Portland Middle School Should 'Limit' Outdoor Activities

A new report finds significant air quality problems at a middle school building slated to open this fall in North Portland.

A study of air quality at Harriet Tubman Middle School has found high levels of at least three toxic chemicals related to nearby Interstate 5: acrolein, benzene and napthalene. The report found the air quality was worst on the highway side of the school, and improved substantially on the eastern side.

The findings led Portland State University scientists to recommend students limit their time outside. Researchers said adding vegetation could cut pollutants between 15 and 60 percent, but they didn't sound confident that such steps would do enough to clear the air outside the school.

"Methods for reducing local outdoor urban air pollution levels are unlikely to reduce levels of air pollutants to values below urban background levels or Ambient Benchmark Concentrations," the PSU scientists wrote in their report.

The thrust of the researchers' recommendations involved the air that students and teachers breathe every day inside the school. Three of the report's five recommendations relate specifically to the ventilation system, and a fourth recommends "building air tightness to minimize infiltration, especially along those portions of the building facing I-5."

Willamette Week first reported the PSU study this week — though the school district received it two-and-a-half months ago without widely sharing it. Correspondence received by OPB suggests the report was presented at an April 25 meeting of the district's environmental technical advisory group, and emailed to district officials and others the day before.

In an emailed response to OPB on Thursday, Portland Public Schools spokeswoman Stephanie Cameron pointed to two additional meetings where the PSU findings were discussed – at a community meeting for one of the school communities feeding to Tubman and as part of the lengthy school board agenda at the May 22 meeting. Cameron pointed out the report is also posted to the district web site, though not on the page labeled “Healthy and Safe Schools.”

Further complicating the long-term prospects for healthy air at Tubman is the possibility of a freeway expansion in the area.

The PSU scientists began their research in February, on the heels of concerns voiced by parents and echoed by school board members last fall. At the time, the board asked district staff to explore alternative sites for the area’s middle schoolers if the air at Tubman proved too unhealthy to use as a school. The district hasn't publicized any such options.

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<p>Harriet Tubman Middle School (uphill, on right) sits above Interstate 5, causing substantial air quality problems at the school, according to a Portland State University study in 2018.</p>

Rob Manning


Harriet Tubman Middle School (uphill, on right) sits above Interstate 5, causing substantial air quality problems at the school, according to a Portland State University study in 2018.

Rob Manning is a news editor at Oregon Public Broadcasting, with oversight of reporters covering education, healthcare and business. Rob became an editor in 2019, following about 15 years covering schools and universities in Oregon and southwest Washington as OPB’s education reporter.