Swift Creek and Sumas River Asbestos Exposure

Washington State residents are warned that the soil and sediment flowing into Swift Creek contains high levels of naturally-occurring asbestos, which then flows into the Sumas River near the town of Noosack in Whatcom County. It is estimated that about 120,000 cubic yards of sediment landslide into the creek from the Sumas Mountains each year. Residents engaging in activities along Swift Creek or Sumas River are at risk for exposure to natural asbestos fibers. Asbestos is a known human carcinogen, though development of diseases caused by exposure can take decades to develop. Flooding of the river in particular poses a serious threat to public health. Residents along the Sumas River flood area should assume that all floodwaters and mud contain asbestos.

The EPA released a Fact Sheet recently outlining Swift Creek and Sumas River flood risks for residents. Asbestos attorneys encourage those living in close vicinity to these areas and those who engage in recreational activities to download this Fact Sheet immediately to protect your family from the devastating effects of asbestos exposure. The document describes preliminary measures to take before and after a flood, how to protect your lungs from the invisible asbestos fibers, how to properly clean your home if you suspect you tracked contaminated dirt in, and useful links for further information.

Creek sediments are exposed when water levels are low, when the creek is dredged or when floods deposit material on banks and adjacent properties. Asbestos can become airborne when this asbestos-containing sediment is disturbed. This could happen during activities like walking or riding on sediments, or if the sediments are used for home construction projects, such as driveways or pathways. When asbestos becomes airborne, it can be breathed into the lungs and increases the risk of developing asbestos-related disease.

EPA is working with local, state, and federal agencies on a safe, long-term management plan for sediments coming from Sumas Mountain.

In 2006, EPA conducted “activity-based” air sampling to determine whether asbestos fibers in piles of dredged sediments along Swift Creek can get into a person’s breathing zone during routine activities such as raking, shoveling, jogging, and biking. In 2007, EPA released a Summary Report which showed elevated levels of risk for certain activities. As a result of these findings, EPA recommended that local residents limit their exposure to the dredged materials. Following flooding in January 2009, EPA sampled water sediments and flood deposits along the Sumas River. The results confirm that elevated asbestos levels occur from Sumas Mountain to (and probably beyond) the Canadian border. In August 2010, EPA conducted soil and activity-based sampling to provide data to determine the degree of potential risks to individuals who are exposed to airborne asbestos as a result of working or living in areas with flood deposits contaminated with asbestos.

In the past, no one kept track of where Swift Creek sediments were taken. So today, little is known about where the material is located or how it was used. Some information indicates that it was used for construction projects and by individuals for driveways and pathways. Currently, there are no plans and no funding to address past uses on private property. Testing in some public areas is being considered. For now, the health agencies are providing health information to potentially affected community members. This includes information about asbestos, its possible health effects, and ways people can reduce or eliminate their exposure to asbestos in the sediment.

There are methods to reduce the amount of asbestos-bearing sediment getting into the Swift Creek. One example of a possible method is to build a detention basin, where sediments would settle out in the upstream portion of the creek. However, methods like this are very expensive. The recently awarded $1 million in state funding for Swift Creek only provides a very small fraction of the money needed for such a project (total project cost estimated at over $20 million).

Asbestos exposure attorneys at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm remind the Washington public that even at low levels, exposure can increase the chance of asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. It is expected that the Sumas landslide will remain active for at least another 400 years. It is in the best interest of the community to research the potential for asbestos exposure to best protect your family. If you developed an asbestos-related disease from exposure, contact an experienced mesothelioma lawyer immediately for a free legal consultation.

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