Dirty risks reaffirmed by more contaminated sites

The Mirror

New information released this week reaffirms the need for keeping children safe from potentially harmful lead and arsenic in the soil at playgrounds, King County health officials said.

In its ongoing study of where the airborne chemicals from the old Asarco smelter near Tacoma landed, the state Department of Ecology reported more tainted areas Wednesday where children play in King and Pierce counties.

Officials said areas with the highest concentrations aren’t dangerous as long as people take basic precautions to avoid ingesting contaminated dirt. A particular focus is on young children who might put hands and objects in their mouths while playing.

A spokeswoman for the Seattle-King County Public Health Department, which has been involved in DOE’s smelter plume study –– so-named for arsenic and lead carried by the wind –– said the new information doesn’t indicate the problem is worse in King County than was thought earlier.

It does, however, “show that we must continue to protect children from the long-term effects of arsenic and lead,” said Dorothy Teeter, interim director of the Health Department. “It’s a good idea for all parents and childcare-givers to practice soil-safety guidelines.”

Smelter emissions have polluted soil as far away as Thurston County. Prevailing wind and topography affected the spread of the pollution. In

general, hill slopes facing toward the smelter, which was on the Puget Sound waterfront in Ruston, have more contamination than slopes facing away from the smelter, according to DOE.

Steps to avoid exposure to contaminated soil include covering bare dirt, washing hands after playing outside and removing shoes before going inside.

The Health Department has sampled 91 schools, parks and childcare centers in the southwest part of King County, including Federal Way, Kent and unincorporated areas. Schools that had arsenic levels above the state-mandated cleanup level included Twin Lakes and Star Lake elementary schools in the Federal Way Public School system. Star Lake also was above the cleanup level in lead concentrations.

Soil in one park and three childcares centers in King County contained lead above the cleanup standard, officials reported.

In such cases, health officials recommend safety guidelines.

A state law passed in April by the Legislature requires childcare centers run as private businesses to allow testing by the state. But the names aren’t routinely included in information released by health agencies because officials want to avoid giving an impression that the problem exists only at those properties. The names are public information, however, and can be obtained through formal requests backed by public-access laws.

While new information about King County wasn’t reported this week, “it’s good data to have,” said Hillary Karasz, a Health Department spokeswoman. “It reinforces what we’ve been telling people for some time –– that there’s a problem for them to be aware of and to take precautions.”

In Pierce County and Tacoma, the highest levels of arsenic and lead reported this week were at the Never Never Land play area at Point Defiance Park, closest to the former smelter site.

The smelter closed in the 1990s after operating for a century.

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