Two weeks ago, the girls and I checked out Colegate Park, a fantastic space-themed playground out in University Place. I came home all jazzed up to write about it, only to find this article from the Washington State Department of Ecology, dated 2003.
Here's the part we're concerned with: "At four parks, the average arsenic for a play area was above the state cleanup level of 20 parts per million. The highest average arsenic for a play area was 46 parts per million at both Curran Apple Orchard and Colgate Park in University Place. (Average of 6 to 10 samples within each play area). "
OK. Well, that's not cool, is it? Of course, we live in the Tacoma area, former home of the Asarco smelter, so there are going to be issues with many of the places our kids play, including our own backyards. As bad as that sounds, it's not really any different than most industrial cities across the US. Then I went through my video footage of our time there, and remember the construction site next door, the massive quantity of dirt being moved....blowing across the playground......gulp. Arsenic really can't do any harm on your skin, but inhaled is another matter. This is the sort of thing I'd have not given a second thought to before I had kids, but things are a little different now.
Over the course of the past two weeks, I've spoken with various government agencies, including the University Place School District, Park and Recreation Department, and Public Works Department, and the Pierce County Health Department and Washington State Department of Ecology. Here's the bottom line:
Good News - at least it's not lead (Hey thanks, Asarco ;) While there is some evidence that arsenic can lead to lower IQ scores in children, it's not the same direct relationship that you see in lead exposure. Unfortunately, it does have some other nasty side effects like sore throats, and.....possibly cancer. Here's a little light reading about arsenci from DHHS.
Later testing performed at the Junior High next door did not show levels high enough to trigger any type of remedial measures, according to school district maintenance head Mike Patterson. This made me wonder, how is that possible when the construction site is right next to the playground? He was not aware of the 2003 tests that showed such elevated levels at the park. (Neither were a few other UP officials I talked to)
I spoke with Amy Hargrove at the Washington State Department of Ecology. She backed up Mike Patterson that indeed, there were tests performed at the Junior High property in 2005. Whether or not those tests were performed at the current construction site is not entirely clear to me at the moment.
So, in light of all this, what can be done to limit exposure at the playground? While construction is going on, workers will hopefully follow basic soil management procedures like hosing down the soil so that it does not become airborne. (If you see otherwise, please let me know!) What you can do as a park visitor, is follow these basic precautions, recommended by the Tacoma-Pierce County Department of Health. Actually, we should all be following those recommendations, anyway, wherever we go in the Tacoma area.
This park is so much fun. I'd like to take the kids back. Honestly? I'll wait until they're not working on the school next door, or at least until all that soil has found its final resting place. I'd like to tell you something more positive than that, but that's how I feel about taking my own kids, so I can't responsibly tell you any different. It may be the arsenic levels at the construction site really are just fine, but I'd rather my kids not be inhaling dirt from any nearby source.
For more information:
Free soil testing for childcare centers
8500 37th Street West
University Place, WA