Officials on trail of arsenic


Staff writer

A series of public meetings has been scheduled by the state Department of Ecology to identify locations in south King County where children play that could be contaminated by arsenic and lead from the former Arsaco smelter in Ruston.

The first meeting will be held Oct. 30 at the Federal Way City Council chambers at city hall from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Subsequent meetings are planned for Des Moines, Vashon Island and Tukwila.

The DOE has tested for arsenic and lead contamination in undeveloped areas where state health officials believed the contaminants would have been left undisturbed.

“What we’re looking at next are areas that have been developed, focusing primarily on child-use areas,” said Larry Altose, spokesman for DOE. “The people who are most exposed are probably young children because they are outside playing in the dirt. Very young children don’t know not to put their fingers in their mouths.”

High levels of arsenic are known to cause cancer, and lead poisoning has been linked to developmental disabilities.

DOE plans to sample soil from schools, preschools, childcare centers, parks and playfields for levels of arsenic and lead that may have been carried there in airborne emissions from the smelter near the Tacoma waterfront. The smelter is now closed and the site of a Superfund cleanup.

With contaminants found from southwest Seattle to the King/Pierce County line, toxic concentrations are highest in the Des Moines/Normandy Park area and on parts of Vashon Island, according to officials.

“Federal Way is a bit farther, and it has lower concentrations than the Des Moines/Normandy Park areas,” said Altose.

Although arsenic and lead contamination in Federal Way is not high enough for health officials to declare an emergency, Altose said DOE has “encouraged people to be careful.”

In order to ensure that areas with the highest levels of expected contamination are tested, DOE has defined a study zone. Areas within the study zone are expected to contain concentrations of arsenic of more than 100 parts per million.

Known child-use areas within the study zone will be prioritized for soil sampling. DOE also hopes to identify informal play or activity centers -- such as community gardens, nature education centers, vacant lots or play areas associated with apartments, housing complexes or churches -- through public input for inclusion in testing consideration.

In order to target the worst areas first, a formula has been developed for testing-selection. Factors include the number of children present at the property, the potential highest level of contamination, how recently the property was developed and how much contact a child is likely to have with the soil. A score is figured for each factor, then added together. Expected soil concentration is weighted at 1.5 times the weight of the other factors.

Current funding allows for sampling of approximately 70 child-use areas in King County. Sampling is expected to begin early next year.

“The meetings are to give us a chance to talk to people who might have suggestions about places that might be worth including in the study, and also providing information to the public,” Altose said.

Staff writer Jody Allard can be reached at 925-5565 and

Public’s role

In addition to meetings Oct. 30 at 6:30 p.m. at Federal Way City Hall and Nov. 6 at 6:30 p.m. at Highline Community College (building 3, room 3), the public can participate in the state study of possible arsenic and lead contamination by sending written comments to Marian Abbett, Project Coordinator, Department of Ecology, P.O. Box 47775, Olympia, WA 98504-7775, or e-mailing to

More information can be found on-line at

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