Parents for Safe Child Care

Arsenic poisoning's impact seen over long term

Symptoms resemble those of the flu

Monday, November 29, 2004


There is no conclusive evidence that children were harmed by the arsenic and other contaminants spread by the old Asarco smelter near Tacoma, experts say.

But they say there also is no dismissing the long-term health risks posed by years of exposure to arsenic, a known carcinogen, in the kids' yards, schools and playgrounds.

Arsenic poisoning can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness and headaches -- but those symptoms can also be attributed to the flu or other common illnesses.

Soil tests at schools, day care centers, parks and other "child-use sites" have found widespread arsenic contamination, but at concentrations that are generally too low to cause symptoms, said Frank DiBiase of the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.

"The levels that are found out there don't represent any kind of an acute health risk or an emergency," he said. "It's more concern over long-term -- chronic impacts associated with it."

Those effects include cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer of the skin, kidneys, bladder, lungs, prostate and liver.

To minimize risk, health officials recommend the following:

A single ingestion of arsenic-contaminated soil by a small child could lead to health problems later in life, according to Rita Schenck, who runs the Institute for Environmental Research and Education on Vashon Island.

"It's long-term increased potential for cancer," she said.

Parents concerned about their child's exposure to arsenic should contact their pediatrician. DiBiase cautioned that tests may not provide conclusive information, since arsenic typically leaves the body within a few days.

Asarco is providing testing for families living within a one-mile radius of its Ruston site.

Families outside that area have to rely on health insurance to cover testing, but DiBiase said help is available for low-income families.

Parents for Safe Child Care is a 501(c)(3) non-profit