Officials downplay arsenic danger

Mirror staff

There is no health concern at elementary schools in Federal Way and elsewhere in King and Pierce counties that were tested for lead and arsenic, state officials said Wednesday.

Although playgrounds at two schools in Federal Way –– Twin Lakes and Star Lake –– have arsenic levels that prompted an advisory from the school district, the state Department of Ecology said washing hands and wiping shoes will help reduce the risk of exposure to contaminated soil.

The ecology department began checking schoolgrounds last year for possible arsenic that drifted there in airborne plumes from the former Asarco smelter in Ruston.

Of the 55 schools tested, one school –– Point Defiance Elementary in the Tacoma School District –– had enough arsenic for immediate health precautions. Part of a play yard heavily used by children has been fenced off.

The highest single concentration of arsenic found at the school was 691 parts per million (ppm), but it was in an undeveloped area not frequently used by students. Levels of 114 ppm were found in the play yard. The state’s arsenic cleanup level is 20 ppm, but its trigger level for recommending immediate action is 100 ppm.

More than half of the 55 schools tested have some arsenic levels above the state cleanup levels, but only eight had play areas above the cleanup level. Twin Lakes and Star Lake are two of those, although Federal Way Public Schools superintendent Tom Murphy said in a letter to students, parents and school workers that there are no “higher-than-acceptable levels.”

Health officials have pointed out that low-to-moderate amounts of arsenic and lead can be found throughout western Washington from long-ago smokestack emissions and pesticides. The material can stay in dirt, creating the possibility of health problems for people through long-term exposure.

The ecology department study, focusing largely on playgrounds and other open areas frequented by people, is an effort to find locations where risky levels of arsenic exist.

State, school and Seattle-King County Health Department officials have repeatedly advised personal sanitation at home, work or school as a way to ward off exposure to arsenic or lead in soil.

“As always, one of our primary concerns is for the health and safety of our students,” Murphy said. He added the school district will work closely with health officials “to monitor this situation.”

At least 14 elementary schools in the Federal Way district were tested. Only Twin Lakes and Star Lake had significant levels of arsenic, officials reported.

In some instances, the levels differ dramatically within a few feet, thus diminishing the overall threat of arsenic exposure, officials said.

The arsenic levels at Point Defiance Elementary “were not much of a surprise, since it is the closest school” to the Commencement Bay site of the former smelter, said Marian Abbett, the ecology department’s manager of the smelter-plume project. The location is now a federal Superfund cleanup site.

Elementary schools within the area affected by Tacoma smelter plume are being given advice about how to provide clean play areas for children, according to Abbett. Options include covering ground in play areas with rubber mats or layers of clean soil, wood chips or shredded tires.

Ecology department officials said information was delivered to all schools last week.

In King County, soil samples were collected at 35 schools in the Federal Way, Highline, Tukwila and Kent school districts, and at three private schools.

In Pierce County, soil samples were taken at 17 public schools in the Clover Park, Peninsula, Steilacoom, Tacoma and University Place school districts.

While arsenic has been found from southwest Seattle to the King/Pierce county line, toxic amounts in King County are highest in the Des Moines and Normandy Park areas and on parts of Vashon Island, according to officials.

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