More King, Pierce play areas found with Tacoma smelter pollution

New data released by the state Department of Ecology (Ecology) show additional areas of lead and arsenic where children play...

New data released by the state Department of Ecology (Ecology) show additional areas of lead and arsenic where children play in King and Pierce counties left behind by Tacoma’s by-gone smelter.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department (TPCHD) and Public Health-Seattle & King County (Public Health) gathered the information using Ecology funding. The two agencies sampled for lead and arsenic in the top six inches of soil in playgrounds and other areas used by children. The studies focus on child-use areas because very young children tend to taste dirt or put dirty hands and objects into their mouths and because they are vulnerable to the effects of heavy metals.

TPCHD studied six Tacoma-area parks. The Never Never Land play area at Point Defiance Park, closest to the former smoke stack of all parks tested, showed the highest levels of arsenic and lead. The average arsenic level was 85 parts per million (ppm) and average lead level was 233 ppm. The arsenic level does not meet the 20 ppm state cleanup standard, but the lead level is below the 250 ppm cleanup threshold.

The TPCHD study also found moderately elevated arsenic at Vassault Playfield, Titlow Park and Optimist Park. Soil at two other parks was within state soil standards.

“These results are consistent with findings over the past five years,” said Marian Abbett, who heads Ecology’s work in four counties on the
Tacoma smelter plume. “Most of the play areas have safe levels of arsenic and lead in the soil. The areas with higher concentrations are not a health concern as long as people follow simple soil safety guidelines to avoid exposure.”

“With guidance from Tacoma health officials and the Department of Ecology, we have already installed signs urging parents to help their children take healthy actions, such as washing their hands, after playing in parks in the study area,” said Susan Hulbert, Metro Parks Tacoma spokeswoman. “In the one area where arsenic levels were above 200 ppm, the picnic table has been removed and the soil covered with bark chips.”

Public Health – Seattle & King County sampled 91 schools, parks and childcare centers in the southwest part of King County, including Burien, Tukwila, Federal Way, Kent and unincorporated areas. Of the 12 schools tested, all had average arsenic levels below the state cleanup level of 20 ppm. Five parks and four childcare centers had average arsenic levels above 20 ppm. Soil in one park and three childcares centers contained lead above the cleanup standard of 250 ppm.

“The results from this study show that we must continue to protect children from the long-term effects of arsenic and lead,” said Dorothy Teeter, interim director of Public Health – Seattle & King County. “It’s a good idea for all parents and care givers to practice soil-safety guidelines.”

Smelter emissions have polluted soils as far away as northeast Thurston County across a broad arc that includes the Shoreline, Duvall and Issaquah areas in King County. Prevailing wind direction and speed, influenced by topography, affected the spread of the former smelter’s pollution plume.

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