The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, has now isolated naturally-occurring asbestos in Washington State’s Whatcom County, downstream of Swift Creek and along the banks of the Sumas River.
The asbestos is the result of a landslide on Sumas Mountain that deposited asbestos-laden sediment into Swift Creek, which was the focus of summer 2007 EPA health and environmental studies.
The most recent EPA sampling shows that asbestos from Swift Creek asbestos has migrated into the northern portion of the Sumas River between the point where Swift Creek enters the river and the Canadian border.
According to EPA reports, both the water and sediments deposited along the river contain higher levels of asbestos than formerly recorded. Asbestos has also been found in some soils near the river where flooding occurred in the winter of 2008-2009. The levels along the bank range from 2 to 23 percent asbestos. Upland soils in the flooded area range from 0.5 to 27 percent asbestos. The actual asbestos content in water ranged from 63 to 1,483 million fibers per liter (MFL), which greatly exceeds the 7 MFL safe limit set by the EPA.
Naturally-occurring asbestos is a fibrous mineral that can be found in certain types of rock or soil. Most of the asbestos found in the Sumas River/Swift Creek area is chrysotile, the kind of asbestos most commonly used in commercial products like brake linings until the EPA ruled, in 1989, that asbestos could comprise no more than one percent of a product by weight or volume.
The asbestos comes from Sumas Mountain, and may actually cause creek and river water to turn whitish. Asbestos fibers, even in their natural state, can – when inhaled or ingested – damage the lungs or the mesothelial lining of the lungs and abdomen, leading to such asbestos-related diseases as lung cancer, asbestosis (a debilitating respiratory disease) or mesothelioma; that is, cancers of the mesothelial lining which are largely incurable and lead to a prognosis of about 12-18 months to live.
The EPA’s recent sampling also revealed metals in creek and river water, and a recent letter to property owners in the area advised of the presence of significantly higher quantities of magnesium, chromium, cobalt, and nickel than are found elsewhere. In fact, just the quantity of nickel exceeds the EPA s Lifetime Health Advisory of 100 micrograms per liter (Ilg) in all surface waters sampled.
Residents of the area are consequently being advised not to use the water for any purpose, and to avoid disturbing soils for fear of releasing asbestos particles. Soil sampling is also available, and agencies including the Whatcom County Health Department, Whatcom County Public Works, the state departments of Health, Ecology, and Labor and Industries, the federal Army Corps of Engineers, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and the EPA are coordinating resources and information to attempt resolve this issue both now and in the long term.
At this time, agencies are considering building a dam or breakwater that would control sediment near the landslide, and may in the future ask for changes to local land use planning.
Concerned citizens are being asked to contact the above-mentioned local agencies to assist in determining the level of risk and other precautions that might be taken to minimize that risk.
Source: Environmental Protection Agency