by Amber Wong

“No! I don’t want a rash!” Bryce screams, throwing himself down on the floor with a whump. Gangly legs splayed across the daycare hallway, my son’s five-year-old face contorts into sobs. I’m mortified as I check the hallway for witnesses and shovel him out the door. But secretly I’m proud of him.

What had I done? Moments before I’d mentioned casually as I could, that hey, his class was going to Gas Works Park the next day. Now for most kids, Seattle’s Gas Works Park is a good thing. Kids run up and over Kite Hill. Kids slalom through brightly painted pumps in the old pump room. Kids poke for rocks at the shoreline. But Bryce apparently took home more than a huge dose of boredom when I’d sneaked him into a public meeting about the Gas Works investigation last week. Amidst all the blather about polyaromatic hydrocarbons and groundwater migration and piezometric levels, here was his big takeaway: Gas Works gives you rashes.

Now that’s not what they actually said. What they’d said, in a botched effort to downplay the risks, was that the polluted soil and groundwater problem at Gas Works Park was not as bad as Love Canal. In essence, it wouldn’t kill you. But it might have some small side effect. Like a rash.

And if he’d really wanted to know, he could have asked me. I’m an environmental engineer. As the federal Environmental Protection Agency official in charge of putting contaminated sites on the National Priorities List, essentially naming them Superfund sites, I could have gone through the data and showed him the mathematical model and told him the pros and cons of being on the list. Pros: federal funding, federal enforcement. Cons: stigma. But five-year-olds don’t need to know that.

Once outside, I try to explain. Snapping him into his car seat, I wipe away the salt tear tracks from his smooth cheeks, meet him at eye level. Soothingly, I croon, “You’ll be fine.”

“No! I might get a rash!” His little feet kick in alarm.

Now we are entering dangerous territory. He’s right about that, of course, because that’s the nature of risk assessment. Would it happen? Who knew? Might it happen? Yes. That possibility is real. Each day we make countless calculations, make certain judgments, mostly unconsciously. But here is my son, wanting to know the definitive answer. Should he be afraid of Gas Works or not?

I put on my best concerned mom face and start with the facts, smoothing his legs to calm him. “Look, babe, it hasn’t rained recently, so the contaminated groundwater isn’t surfacing…” I stop to scold myself – no, not that vocabulary. I start again; this time I smile and add a lilt into my voice. Using two fingers as little legs, I mime a veering body as I say, “If there are puddles on the ground, go around them. And if you see a rainbowy color in the water at the shoreline, don’t play there!” My two little finger-legs scurry away.

The next morning I’m snapping apple slices into reused margarine containers for our bag lunches when I hear Bryce lumber down the hall. When he climbs onto his kitchen stool I have to stop myself from laughing aloud. Bryce is as wide as he was tall. Any other day, he’d be in a T-shirt and jeans, his lean figure bounding down the hall. Not today. His ski parka is zipped up to his chin, his hood tied tight over his head. His arms stick out perpendicular to his sides. Under his hood he’s wearing a fleece balaclava, the kind with one oval cutout for his eyes, the one he calls his “knight hat.” His ski pants are taut over his sweatpants and his rubber boots reach up to his knees. His little hands are hidden under two layers of gloves. All he’d need was a tight layer of Saran Wrap and he’d be just about as protected as the Tyvek white-suited guys I’d sent out to Gas Works last year. Luckily, he has no inkling that I actually know where to get a Tyvek suit, or he’d be demanding one.

And then a sobering thought hits me – he’s absolutely right to be afraid. At the public meeting, he learned his lesson well. There are dangerous chemicals out there and he shouldn’t touch them. He might not understand cancer, but to a little kid a rash is bad enough. But I and all those other bureaucrats hadn’t brought that personal insight to our jobs. We’d been talking about Gas Works as just another contaminated site, just another project to put in the queue to be studied and analyzed and debated. Places like this lurk all across America. This site wouldn’t be clean for another twenty years.

That’s not good enough. Gas Works Park is Seattle’s urban playground. Families walk dogs there, fly kites, scramble all over the grass. Teens swim at the shore on hot summer nights. Kids stomp in puddles. So for the next ten or twenty years, unsuspecting park-goers will continue to be exposed to dangerous chemicals, some of which could cause cancer. They’ll make the same mistake as the people at Love Canal. Because the park is open, they’ll assume it’s safe.

On some five-year-old gut level, Bryce understands this. He will not make that same mistake. For him, the danger is immediate, real. Given the choice of playing here or elsewhere, any other playground would win hands down. For him, the choice is simple – rash, or no rash?

I don’t know what people think of him, or of my parenting, when he shows up at daycare looking like the Michelin man. I don’t know if he’ll refuse to go to Gas Works with the rest of his class. But one thing I’m sure of: he’s right.


Photo: CAJC in the PNW via Flickr