Learning About Lead In West Seattle

by holli on April 3, 2014

© Holli with an i photography Moss wall in my neighborhood.

© Holli with an i photography
Moss wall in my neighborhood.

There’s this huge void between what I thought I knew about air pollution and what I have learned in the past week. Ever since I found out my son has lead and mercury in his blood, and was told to find the sources and eliminate them as best I could, I feel like it’s a journey along a rabbit hole. Truth is, that was because I had on my emotional goggles – you know like beer goggles that cloud what you see, except mine were emotions of anger and worry. I got to work and found out everything I could, then took a step away and have enough data to worry a little bit less about our soil and air.

Let’s talk about lead.

Lead is something we come in contact with everyday – things from old paint to pottery to contaminated dust and soil.  Our bodies absorb lead through breathing it in and by contact on the skin or through contaminated food. Breathing lead vapors is the fastest route for lead to get into your system. And second is eating it: children absorb 30-50% of what they eat, compared to 10% for adults.

The CDC says that children with 5 micrograms per deciliter in their blood is a level to seek treatment or “case management.” And that number used to be 10 micrograms per deciliter. Many other sources say that no level of lead is safe. But for the sake of my comfort level and concern for my children, I’m going with 5 micrograms per deciliter.

The sad thing is, no one really knew lead was a problem or how it got into our environment to make people sick. It would take 100+ years before we had the science to see it, and manufacturing or the industrial revolution pumped large quantities of it into the air before we knew any better.

West Seattle’s lead exposures…

The Tacoma Plume Project aims to help mitigate the lead and arsenic dispersed throughout the Puget Sound by an old Copper plant in Tacoma. It closed in 1980 but was running for a hundred years and putting large amounts of harmful elements into our air. That got carried around by the airstream all the way up here to West Seattle.

In 2007 and 2008, the Dept. of Ecology did soil samples at schools and any place where children were taken care of like Daycares or the community center. Any samples with over 250ppm of lead or 20ppm of arsenic in it got cleaned up. The soil naturally has up to 10 ppm of lead in it.

I asked for test results for our children’s school and the Delridge Community Center. Here are their results:

Our school:

·         Play area 1 (0-6 inches)

o   Average arsenic: 3.24 parts per million (ppm)

o   Max arsenic: 3.60 ppm

o   Average lead: 2.54 ppm

o   Max lead: 2.60 ppm

·         Play area 2 (0-6 inches)

o   Average arsenic: 4.30 ppm

o   Max arsenic: 5.30 ppm

o   Average lead: 18.03 ppm

o   Max lead: 23.00 ppm

Delridge Community Center childcare center play area in August 2008. The results for the top 6 inches of soil were:

·         Average arsenic: 6.15 ppm

·         Max arsenic: 10.00 ppm

·         Average lead: 18.50 ppm

·         Max lead: 37.00 ppm

I am still waiting to get results for my soil and the P-Patch we garden in down the street. So, basically, our levels are safe, I still have no idea how or at what rate it gets into our bodies when it’s in the soil. I ordered a test through King County Conservation District (it was $20 for the basic soil nutrient test, $16 per element on top like for Lead or Mercury). And, I hope it finds even less lead in the soil.

 . . .

©Holli with an i photography Nucor Steel - a functional landmark in West Seattle.

©Holli with an i photography
Nucor Steel – a functional landmark in West Seattle.


And, then I looked into the Nucor Steel Plant, which has also been running for 100+ years. It’s changed names and ownership, but it’s been a community fixture for generations.

Nucor is a local business that many people wonder about and suspect is a source of pollution. But, as I found out, in order to stay in business, it has worked willingly with the EPA and state and city regulators to meet all current requirements. The EPA has a handy website where they show records for plants registered with them and the elements they recycle and emit into the environment.

As I understand it, Nucor reports based on amounts processed and can make estimations from percentages. For example, they smelt x number of cars, and estimate x amount of them have mercury switches in them, with each switch containing x amount. If you look at the EPA page for Nucor, they report in millions of pounds!

So, at first glance, it looks like lead is a tiny sliver. When you select, “Display waste quantities as a percentage of total waste,” you will see that they have recycled 98% and released 2% – when you look at that in terms of pounds, that 2% is 6,374lbs. That sounds like a lot, but the overall picture from the EPA is that it is not.

What I still don’t know is, at what level of output in pounds of lead a problem for our health? I can’t get a number, because things like wind patterns play a part in where it goes, and how much you’ll inhale it. This worries me, but I chose to believe that the scientists and experts who monitor things like this know what they are doing. Because, I hope we’re all doing the best we can with what we know. Just look at what we were doing 100 years ago in the name of progress!


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