Environmental Health News

New Report on the Health Impacts of the Duwamish River Cleanup

Return to Spring/Summer 2013 issue

Two men fishing on the Duwamish River

Linn Gould, Just Health Action.

A new report examines the potential health impacts from the Duwamish River cleanup on Tribes and people who use the river or live and work nearby. The report recommends ways to minimize negative health impacts, maximize health benefits, and reduce health disparities.

The Health Impact Assessment was conducted by researchers in our department, Just Health Action, and the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/Technical Advisory Group (DRCC/TAG). The team submitted a report to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the public comment period on its proposed plan in June, and a final version should be released in July and available online at: http://deohs.washington.edu/hia-duwamish.

“Our findings demonstrate how EPA’s cleanup plan could significantly impact particular communities,” said William Daniell, an associate professor in our department. “EPA studies focused on disease outcomes and didn’t identify and evaluate broader implications for health and well-being,” he explained. “We hope that they will incorporate our findings and recommendations.”

More than a century of industrial and urban wastes have contaminated the river with a mix of 41 toxic chemicals.

Of the chemicals most concerning to human health, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (cPAHs), arsenic, and dioxins and furans top the list. Exposure comes from eating resident fish or shellfish and contact with contaminated sediment. EPA’s plan will reduce health risks, but it will not succeed in lowering contamination levels to background levels seen in Puget Sound. Nor will resident seafood be safe to eat for subsistence fishers or for Tribal members.

The health impacts report outlines recommendations to protect the health of three Native American Tribes impacted by the cleanup: the Duwamish, Muckleshoot, and Suquamish. In particular, the researchers suggest EPA collaborate with Tribes to address their health concerns and restore safe access to natural resources and fish.

For local residents, construction-related activities and rail and truck traffic could increase air and noise pollution and could negatively affect residents if not properly managed. In addition, the cleanup may increase ongoing gentrification and cause displacement of local community members. With advance planning, the cleanup may generate new jobs and revitalize the South Park and Georgetown neighborhoods.

“Disadvantaged people who have more life stress, such as poverty, exposure to crime, and less leisure time, are more vulnerable to contamination, which can explain some health disparities,” said Linn Gould, executive director of Just Health Action.

“Residents and other people who use the river have valid concerns about how to best protect their health during and after cleanup. This study helps identify ways we can improve the result, especially for those who are most affected,” said BJ Cummings, community health projects manager for DRCC/TAG.

The project also investigated the possible effects of the cleanup on workers and employment in local industries. The cleanup could add to existing pressures on industry. Changes in land use could result in loss of jobs or reduction in employment hours. Alternatively, businesses and employment may experience growth if the cleanup reversed constraints and removed the stigma of a blighted river.

Graduate students Jonathan Childers and Amber Lenhart were also involved in the project.

Support for the health impact assessment was provided by the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts, and by the Rohm & Haas Professorship in Public Health Sciences, sponsored by the Rohm & Haas Company.

Return to Spring/Summer 2013 issue