Arsenic, lead, and other metals were released into the environment from the Asarco copper smelter, which operated from 1890 to 1986 in Ruston, in north Tacoma. The air
pollution that came out of the smelterís smokestack traveled with the wind and settled onto the soil in much of the Puget Sound area.
The Tacoma Smelter Plume studies conducted between 1999-2003 tested soil from King and Pierce counties. These soil samples were found to have levels of lead and arsenic
above naturally occurring background concentrations. In 2004 the study area was broadened to include Thurston and
Kitsap counties to further define the area impacted by the smelter.
Thurston County Study Area
In Thurston County, 204 soil samples were collected from the upper six inches of undisturbed soil at 51 sites. Because the smelter ash was deposited onto the ground
from the air, the samples were collected in areas believed to have the least soil disturbance. Undisturbed soils
were expected to have the highest concentrations of arsenic and lead from the smelter ash, so most of the sample locations were in undeveloped forested areas.
The state's soil cleanup standard for arsenic is 20 parts per million (ppm); for lead, it is 250 ppm. Of the 51 sites
where soil was sampled in Thurston County, 32 fell within the state standard for arsenic and 50 were within the
standard for lead. Further analysis of the soil will be done at the one site that tested high for lead, to see if the pollution is from the smelter or another source.
Arsenic and lead levels in some of the soil samples were higher than those naturally occurring in the Puget Sound
area. There is no health emergency from concentrations measured at any of the sites.
Lead and arsenic are naturally occurring in dirt, food, and water. Although lead and arsenic levels in some of the
Thurston County study area soils were higher than natural, they are not an immediate health risk. However,
ingesting these metals at concentrations above those naturally occurring for a long period of time may cause an
increased risk of developing adverse health effects. People can lower that risk by washing hands, removing shoes before
going indoors, and taking other steps to limit the amount of soil they accidentally swallow. Viruses, bacteria, and other
metals are also naturally occurring in dirt and even further strengthen the advice to avoid eating dirt.