In the shadow of former Asarco Superfund site, health worries persist

The former Asarco Superfund cleanup site is shown in Ruston, Wash. in this Oct. 14, 2003 file photo.
The former Asarco Superfund cleanup site is shown in Ruston, Wash. in this Oct. 14, 2003 file photo. AP

It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Many of my survivor friends cringe at the onslaught of pink products that are staples of October. Will the proceeds fund research they need? Aren’t some of those pink products toxic or unhealthy?

For those with Stage 4 cancer, awareness is not enough. There is still a need for breakthroughs in breast cancer treatment, because 40,000 people – women and men – die every year from the disease.

This month, I went to Point Ruston to see my plastic surgeon for some basic follow up. It was there, five years ago, that I learned about the copper smelter.

Sure, I recalled a big towery thing in the background of my childhood. I certainly had no idea what it was. I was more interested in making forts in the neighborhood field of Scotch broom and digging for treasures, by hand, in the dirt. Who knew we needed protection?

On my recent visit to Point Ruston, I browsed through the Asarco-related articles in the lobby.

“Kids tested for effects of smelter,” one headline read. It was dated 1983, when I was 9. What was the outcome of the study? I wondered. The article stated that children cannot metabolize arsenic as adults can.

I also picked up a local magazine and learned about the new Dune Peninsula at Point Defiance Park, a playground at the former Superfund site. It felt bittersweet.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 40, a former classmate from Point Defiance Elementary was well into her treatment for breast cancer. My oncologist says that cancer is a disease of aging. But 40 is still considered young, in the cancer world.

My old friend told me that quite a few of our classmates had been diagnosed with various types of cancer. As I started to research the smelter, I learned that the soil at our elementary school had been replaced in the ‘90s.

The Asarco settlement money essentially went to educating the community and cleaning up the toxic remains. Letters were sent to homeowners in the area, advising them of safety precautions. By then, my family had moved to Kent. We never received a letter.

Genetic testing showed no inherited links to cancer. If you read any cancer prevention articles, I probably followed all of the tips, at the time of my diagnosis.

When I told my naturopath about the smelter, he said he had no doubt it had an adverse impact on my health. While it is hard to say what caused my cancer, I knew the toxic exposure in childhood was not the best thing for my DNA.

As an advocate, I studied the science of breast cancer with National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Project LEAD. It was a week-long intensive study, during which I learned more than I ever cared to about cells, mutations and clinical trials.

My favorite lectures were on epidemiology, the study of patterns, causes and control of diseases. Last year, I participated in the Department of Defense’s Breast Cancer Research Program, reviewing grant proposals for $130 million appropriated by Congress.

While I was certainly excited about emerging research and drug breakthroughs, I kept thinking back to my childhood on the North End of Tacoma. What if we could reduce the incidence of cancer simply by eliminating toxins from our environment?

It feels like progress to see the ASARCO site cleaned up and a playground nearby for a new generation of kids. Meanwhile, another classmate is diagnosed with cancer.

It only makes sense to talk about awareness, if we are willing for look for solutions.

Tanessa Dillard Noll lives in Shelton and spent her first 15 years in Tacoma. Her advocacy work includes being a RISE (Respected Influencers Through Science and Education) Advocate for Young Survival Coalition. Reach her by email at tanessanoll@gmail.com.