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Officials Test Seattle's Soil For Toxic Dioxins

Hansi Lo Wang

This week officials from the City of Seattle and the state are testing soil for some extremely toxic chemicals.

BJ Cummings: "One of the toxic components that made Agent Orange so effective was dioxin."

That's BJ Cummings of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition. Her group tracks dioxin levels in South Seattle. That's where, in 2008, the EPA found elevated levels of dioxin in South Park. The state Department of Health says the amount of dioxin found in that neighborhood is not expected to be harmful. But questions remain about how much dioxin is in the rest of Seattle's soil. KUOW's Hansi Lo Wang has more.


The soil sampling is happening in undisclosed public areas of West Seattle, South Park and other neighborhoods. Larry Altose is a spokesman for the state Ecology Department.

Altose: "The study is not triggered by a specific or a general health concern. The real driver behind this study is to help us make appropriate decisions in cleaning up specific contaminated sites."

The levels found in South Park three years ago were higher than the state's dioxin limit for residential areas. BJ Cummings of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition says that's why her group wants more soil testing.

Cummings: "This began with the community and Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition asking for the state Department of Ecology to tell us how far it goes. So you know, is it just limited to these few blocks? Or is it throughout South Park? Is it throughout Duwamish Valley? You know, just how extensive is this?"

In fact, small amounts of dioxins can be found everywhere at background levels. The Ecology Department says most people are exposed to the toxic compound when breathing air, eating food or drinking milk. Lynn Best is with Seattle City Light, which is representing the city in the dioxin study. She says dioxins are created from many different human and natural processes.

Best: "It comes from everything from vehicle emissions, forest fires, burning in your fireplace, waste barrels, various industrial and chemical processes."

Results from Seattle's dioxin soil testing will be released this summer. Researchers expect to find relatively low levels. They hope that will give them a better picture of dioxin levels in different neighborhoods.

But if dioxins are found at levels higher than state limits, it's unclear who will be responsible for the cleanup. And there is a continuing debate among scientists about what levels of low dioxin exposure should even merit a cleanup.

In the meantime, public health officials say you can reduce your exposure to dioxins by removing shoes before entering your home and scrubbing fruits and vegetables from the garden.

For KUOW News, I'm Hansi Lo Wang.

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