Libby Borte's 3-year-old daughter didn't understand why her parents wanted to collect her urine.
"She was upset we wanted to take her pee to the doctor," Borte says. "After a long, tearful preschooler conversation about 'pee belongs in the toilet' and 'is there something wrong with me?' she agreed to send it in."
The Borte family has lived about six blocks from the Bullseye Glass Co. factory at 3722 SE 21st Ave. for 10 years. When U.S. Forest Service tests on moss samples taken across the city found high concentrations of two toxic heavy metals—cadmium and arsenic—in neighborhoods near Bullseye, Libby Borte decided to get her two kids tested.
The test results showed both Borte children's urine contained significantly more than the normal range of arsenic and cadmium.
"I was just pinging back and forth," Borte says, "between 'oh shit' and 'we don't know what this means.'"
The five weeks since The Portland Mercury first reported the high pollution levels near the Bullseye and Uroboros glass factories have been filled with uncertainty for families living in the Southeast and North Portland neighborhoods surrounding the plants.
William Lambert, head of epidemiology at Oregon Health & Science University, says prolonged exposure to high levels of arsenic and cadmium is unlikely to pose immediate health threats, but may have long-term effects.
"The concern is for long-term exposures across a lifetime that may raise the population risk for bladder, kidney and lung cancer, and organ damage (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or kidney disease)," Lambert tells WW in an email.
Local and state health officials have issued similar warnings about these risks—but admit they still don't fully understand what the toxic moss samples mean for human health, especially in children.
"Testing is an individual decision," reads a March 4 document released by two state agencies and the Multnomah County Health Department. "Test results of children under age six can be falsely high and should be interpreted carefully with an expert."
The first results of those tests have now begun to arrive. Parents are sharing information—and compiling their children's cadmium levels on a website.
But for many parents living nearby, the test results have offered little reassurance—only more confusion and worry.
Monique Pritchard is co-owner and medical director of Sellwood Medical Clinic. She lives in Ladd's Addition, about a mile from Bullseye Glass.
Pritchard, a pediatrician, had her two children tested immediately after she saw news of the contaminated moss. Her 7-year-old son Matteo tested at 1.8 micrograms per liter of cadmium—above the typical upper limit of 1.2 micrograms.
Since Matteo's results came back, Pritchard has done extensive research into the health effects of arsenic and cadmium. She says she's installed air purifiers in her house, and her family takes their shoes off when coming indoors, so as not to introduce potentially contaminated soil. Matteo takes dietary supplements to maintain his levels of iron and calcium, which Pritchard says mitigate the effects of the heavy metals.
But Pritchard admits that Portland's medical community doesn't have all the answers.
"Physicians, especially in this community, we haven't had a lot of experience with that," she says.
April St. John, a pregnant mother living in the Brooklyn neighborhood, says her children tested within the normal range for cadmium and arsenic.
But her own results showed nearly twice the normal levels of arsenic.
"I am trying to withhold the panic and fear of my results until I talk with a specialist," St. John says. She has an appointment this week at the Northwest Perinatal Center. "I don't know what the numbers mean," she says. "Not too many doctors do, it doesn't seem."
Borte has purchased $150 worth of nutritional supplements from a naturopath's office. She keeps her children from playing in the yard for fear the soil may be contaminated (it's since tested positive for cadmium).
She's still unsure if her children are in danger.
"Our pediatricians don't know," she says. "Do I need to worry? I don't know."