UW News

May 13, 2013

New report released on health impacts of Duwamish River cleanup

Environmental & Occupational Health

A new report released Monday (May 13) find the potential health impacts of the Duwamish River cleanup could be significant for some groups Native Americans and others who use the Seattle waterway or live or work nearby.

Duwamish River

Boaters paddle on the Duwamish River while their dog wades in the mudflats.Patrick Robinson

In February, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a plan to clean up the Duwamish. The new Health Impact Assessment details changes in health that may result from the cleanup. The report also makes recommendations about how to minimize health impacts, maximize health benefits, and reduce health disparities.

“Our findings demonstrate that EPA’s cleanup plan will significantly impact particular communities,” said Dr. William Daniell, an environmental and occupational epidemiologist and associate professor in the University of Washington School of Public Health.

More than a century of industrial and urban waste has contaminated the river with a mix of 41 toxic chemicals. In 2001, the EPA placed it on the Superfund National Priorities List.  Of the chemicals most concerning to human health, polychlorinated biphenyls, more commonly known as PCBs,  carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, arsenic, dioxins and furans top the list. Exposure to these toxins comes from eating resident fish or shellfish and coming into contact with contaminated sediment.

The Health Impact Assessment report was produced by researchers at the UW School of Public Health in collaboration with community health researchers from Just Health Action and the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/Technical Advisory Group.

In reference to prior assessments done by the agency, Daniell said: “EPA studies focused on disease outcomes and generally fail to identify and evaluate broader health implications. We hope that they will incorporate our findings and recommendations.”

EPA’s proposed plan will reduce health risks, but it will not succeed in meeting the levels obtained in Puget Sound. Nor will resident seafood be safe to eat for subsistence fishers or for Native American tribal members.

The UW report outlines recommendations to protect the health of the Duwamish, Muckleshoot and Suquamish Tribes, who are affected by the cleanup. In particular, the researchers suggest EPA collaborate with these tribes to address their health concerns and restore their safe access to natural resources and fish.

William Daniell

William Daniell, a UW environmental and occupation health epidemiologist, helped develop the report on the health impact of the Duwamish waterway cleanup.Sarah Fish

In terms of the impact on local residents, construction-related activities and rail and truck traffic could increase air and noise pollution if not properly managed.  In addition, the cleanup may cause gentrification and displacement of local residents. If done correctly, 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. Gould  was the primary author of the Duwamish Valley Cumulative Health Impacts Analysis. It showed that, compared to King County residents, people who live in the Duwamish Valley have a shorter life expectancy, higher mortality from lung cancer, more hospitalizations for children with asthma, higher rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In addition, more Duwamish Vally residents lack health insurance.

“Residents and other people who use the river have real and valid concerns about how to best protect their health during and after cleanup,” said BJ Cummings, community health projects manager for the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/Technical Advisory Group, which serves as EPA’s Community Advisory Group for the Superfund site cleanup.

“This study helps identify ways we can improve the result, especially for those who are most affected,” Cummings said

A final version of the report, with findings and recommendations for mitigation measures, will be provided to the EPA in June.

Support for the health impact assessment was provided by a grant from the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Read the full report.