It’s not just what’s inside our kitchen and bathroom cupboards that divides the environmental haves and have-nots, though; it’s also the cupboards and walls themselves. Those of us who own our houses, and who have extra cash, can rid our homes of mold and mildew—which can trigger respiratory problems including asthma—by fixing the plumbing and roof leaks that cause them. And we can invest in cabinetry and paint that don’t off-gas toxic VOCs.
Renters, on the other hand, are largely powerless in this regard. Portland’s outdated property-maintenance codes don’t address indoor air quality, except indirectly (they require landlords to maintain openable windows and to keep rooms free of garbage). As for mold, city inspectors ascertain its presence on the basis of whether it’s visible to the eye—enabling landlords to mask the problem with a couple of coats of paint, instead of incurring the expense of attacking root causes.
Guarding everyone’s health requires more than just a few raised gardens.
Even air pollution tends to be worse in poorer neighborhoods. While a 2005 national study by the Boston-based nonprofit Clean Air Task Force ranked the Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton area in the fifth “unhealthiest” percentile for diesel soot (in other words, we’ve got more diesel particulate matter in our air than 95 percent of other U.S. metro areas), these conditions are worst in neighborhoods near freeways—where, not coincidentally, there are a disproportionately large number of poor households. A 2001 survey led by Lewis & Clark College associate professor Bruce Podobnik found that of those respondents living near the Interstate 5 corridor in North and Northeast Portland, 14.7 percent reported having asthma—twice the national average. For many of these households, moving is simply not an economically feasible option.
Fortunately, Portlanders are working to narrow the environmental health gap. For instance, Growing Gardens is among several nonprofits helping to bring pesticide-free food to the poor—in its case, by helping impoverished East Side households grow organic fruits and vegetables in their backyards. Multnomah County residents who are vulnerable to asthma are getting free help to manage the disease from agencies like the county’s Environmental Health Department, which works with families (albeit only poor ones with asthmatic children under the age of 6) to reduce indoor air pollutants that exacerbate the illness, as well as to adjust kids’ medications. And as this issue goes to press, Portland City Council is preparing to hear recommendations for updating the property-maintenance code. This might mean that protocols for mold inspection will become more stringent, though the code adjustments probably won’t address tenants’ exposure to other indoor air pollutants like formaldehyde gas, which leaches from particleboard cabinetry.
But while these initiatives are commendable and well worth supporting, they don’t go far enough. In fact, by helping only the most vulnerable segments of the population, they merely divide us into three classes instead of two: the environmentally empowered, the environmentally subsidized, and the masses in the middle, who continue to make consumer decisions based on stretching their paychecks as far as they can. To better guard everyone’s health will require something much bigger than raised garden beds. As a society, we’ll need to transform the market such that it can supply essential goods—from food to housing to sunblock—that are both safe and affordable to the masses.