Two stories in the paper this week are a reminder that for years, islanders lived under a toxic plume and must be attentive to the lingering toxins in the soil, especially on Maury Island and the southern half of Vashon.
The state will soon begin work at Maury Island Natural Area. With 275 acres and a long shoreline, it is a jewel in Puget Sound. But it was downwind of Asarco’s copper smelter, which operated in Tacoma for 100 years, before shutting down in 1986. Much of the soil around us holds pollution from that plume, specifically arsenic, lead and other heavy metals. Lead is widely known to cause problems in children under 6, including lowering intelligence and reducing growth, balance and memory. Arsenic exposure is also significant, with long-term exposure leading to a range of serious concerns, including heart disease and several types of cancer, including bladder, lung, skin, kidney, liver and prostate.
At the Farmers Market on Saturday, islanders will also be able to have their soil sampled for free to determine if either of these toxins are in their soils in high amounts. Marian Abbett, who heads the state’s Tacoma Smelter Plume Project, encourages all people — no matter their location on the island — to bring in soil for testing if they wish.
“This event is for everyone who is concerned about arsenic and lead and levels in their soil,” she said in a recent phone conversation.
The state replaces the dirt in yards where arsenic measures 100 ppm or higher and lead is at 500 ppm or more. So far, it has completed remediation work at 35 yards on Vashon. There may be more who would qualify, Abbett said, particularly on the south end.
While the potential for lead and arsenic exposures might be old news for some people, Abbett said she still fields a lot of interest from islanders, even at events like the Strawberry Festival. Often, she said, the people who need the information about the island’s soil the most are newcomers, who may have bought their house not knowing of the risks.
But many of us — long-time residents and newcomers alike — could use a reminder about the simple and effective best practices to keep those in our households healthy.
King County advice includes taking off shoes before entering a home, washing hands well before eating and after working or playing in the dirt, wiping down pets before they come in and giving them their own beds or places in the home. Frequent dusting and vacuuming is recommended, and damp dusting and mopping is suggested. In the yard, bare patches should be covered with ground cover or mulch, and soil should be tested. In the garden, produce should be grown in raised beds, and all fruits and vegetables should be washed well before eating.
It is not known if people who lived under the plume for many years or had prolonged exposure to toxins in the soil developed more illnesses, including cancer, Abbett said. There are so many variables, the studies would be difficult to conduct. But even without specific studies, we all know the risk is there, and as Abbett says, it is important to err on the side of caution.
Let’s be attentive, know the facts and carry on, wisely, in the great outdoors all around us.