Soil is a dirty four-letter word

It's still not recommended to eat the dirt, but the playgrounds at four Federal Way elementary schools are much safer after workers over the summer cleaned up contaminated soil.

The Washington State Department of Ecology last year identified five Federal Way schools among 27 South Sound schools that had elevated levels of arsenic and lead in the soil. The contamination is a result of air pollution from the Asarco copper smelter in Tacoma, which operated for 100 years.

Next week, workers will complete a topsoil replacement project at Nautilus Elementary. Projects at Twin Lakes, Brigadoon and Green Gables elementary schools were also completed this year.

Star Lake Elementary, the last remaining Federal Way school designated for cleanup, will be completed next summer, said Amy Hargrove, soil safety program coordinator for the Department of Ecology.

Exposure to excess lead and arsenic can cause several health problems over time. Children are especially susceptible because they put dirty fingers and toys into their mouths, Hargrove said.

Arsenic exposure has been linked to problems including heart disease, diabetes, cancer of the bladder, lung, skin, kidney, liver and prostate. Lead exposure can cause behavioral problems including permanent learning difficulties and reduced physical growth.

"What we're trying to do is minimize the risk," Hargrove said. "It's a long-term health hazard, not an immediate risk."

Each project cost about $30,000, which the state funded. Department of Ecology officials are currently working to test soil at local daycare centers in Federal Way and may complete work there in the future.

The cleanup consists of removing 6 inches of soil on playgrounds and replacing it with clean soil, sod or other materials. The contaminated soil will be taken to a landfill.

In areas that may still be contaminated, Hargrove recommends taking actions such as washing hands after playing in the dirt, keeping children from putting dirt in their mouths and using a doormat to wipe feet and keep dirt outside.

Federal Way schools with contaminated soil have already been following those procedures, said district spokeswoman Diane Turner.

"Parents were contacted and they've been working with the PTAs," Turner said. "It was never an issue of ‘red flag alert, you can't go outside.’"

Not much will change for students when they return to school in the fall. They will still be encouraged to wash their hands, wipe their feet and keep their dirty fingers out of their mouths.

"We're still not encouraging people to eat dirt," Hargrove said. "There's always risks in eating dirt."

For more information about soil safety or to learn how to test soil on private property, visit

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