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Several Washington State Dept. of Ecology studies confirmed arsenic and lead contamination in King County soils. Much of the arsenic and some of the lead is potentially linked to the Asarco copper smelter smokestack emissions. The smelter was located on Commencement Bay in Tacoma, and operated from the late 1900s to the 1980s. Public Health's Tacoma Smelter Plume Project homepage has links to reports on the studies, fact sheets on arsenic, lead and pica behavior.

The studies found arsenic and lead contamination at various levels throughout the sample area. The areas studied extended from Federal Way to West Seattle, east to Bellevue, south to the Kent valley and on Vashon/Maury Island. Contamination appears to be heaviest on the western portion of the area studied, which was closer to the smelter. From 2004-2006, Public Health - Seattle & King County will be working to determine the other geographical limits of the plume "footprint."

The levels of soil contamination do not present a public health emergency, however, Public Health recommends that all families adhere to the following guidelines to reduce exposure. These guidelines focus on reducing ingestion and inhalation, and include:

  • Washing hands before eating
  • Keeping dust under control with frequent damp mopping
  • Removing shoes before entering the home
  • Keeping children off of bare patches of soil

For other questions about the Tacoma Smelter Plume arsenic issues, please contact the WA State Department of Ecology.

Families may be concerned about testing their children for the presence of arsenic or lead in their blood. Public Health recommends that people who think they have been exposed to arsenic and lead consult their doctor about appropriate testing options.

Arsenic tests may indicate recent exposure to arsenic, but do not indicate possible health effects from exposure. Questions about bio-monitoring tests for arsenic exposure may be directed to Dr. David Kalman, Chair, Department of Environmental Health, University of Washington: 206-543-6991. Dr. Jim White, toxicologist at the Washington State Department of Health is also available for questions relating to arsenic exposure: 360-236-3192.

Public Health recommends children six and under be tested for lead exposure if:

  • Tests in soils where the child plays is greater than 350 ppm; or if
  • The child has other exposure sources such as peeling paint; or if
  • The child has exhibited pica behavior

Related CDC links

Parents' guide to getting children tested for lead exposure

Lead can be very harmful to young children. Lead poisoning can cause learning and behavior problems and damage to the nervous system. It may be hard to see any signs of lead poisoning. You may not notice that anything is wrong unless the amount of lead is very high. But lead poisoning at any level is serious, and you should take steps to protect your child. The Washington State Dept. of Health has lead brochures that may help.

If your child has been tested for lead, you got the results as a blood lead level. This number is the amount of lead in your child's blood. It is measured in micrograms per deciliter of blood.

So what does it mean? The U.S. Centers for Disease Control have set four cutoff levels for the amount of lead in a child's blood. These four levels can help you understand how serious the lead problem is and what you can do about it.

Level 1: 0-9, Normal

Ask your doctor or health care provider if your child should be tested again later.

Level 2: 10-19, Border Zone

  • Level 2A: 10-14
    Ask your doctor or health care provider about a follow-up test in three to four months to be sure the lead level is not going up.

  • Level 2B: 15-19
    You may be able to find and remove the main source of lead exposure. To find out how, read the brochure Lead and Your Kids-A Parent's Guide. Ask for help from your local health department.

    Make sure your child gets enough iron and calcium. Read the brochure Food Safety & Nutrition to Help Prevent Lead Poisoning in Children.

    Ask your doctor about getting follow-up tests every three to four months until the lead level stays below this range.

Level 3: 20-44, Danger Zone

Children with this level of lead in their blood may have health problems, even if they do not show symptoms. An interview and a close look at your house and yard should be done by your local health department. They may be able to find the source of lead and advise you on what steps you can take to remove it.

Get a medical exam for your child.
Get follow-up tests until the amount of lead is well below this level. Other members of your household may also need to be tested.

Level 4: 45 or higher, Emergency Zone

This level of lead can cause serious damage and disability. Get immediate medical attention if the level is 70 or higher.

Get a medical exam for your child.
You may be advised to have your child:

  • evaluated for learning or behavioral problems
  • treated by a specialist.

Washington State Poison Center Network has doctors who specialize in treating lead poisoning.

Work with your local health department immediately to find and remove the sources of lead from your house and yard, from your neighborhood or at work. All members of your household may need to be tested.