Fish in Duwamish tainted, state warns

State health officials yesterday warned against eating too much fish from the polluted lower reaches of the Duwamish River — but still aren't sure how best to communicate that message to those most at risk.

Shellfish from the Duwamish also should be avoided as well as the livers from perch, flounder and English sole and river rockfish, which are found in the lower waterway near Elliott Bay.

Elevated levels of the contaminant PCB have accumulated in the four fish species, and people — especially pregnant women — should eat no more than one meal a month of those fish, officials said. PCBs can affect the immune system and may causing learning problems in children exposed in the womb.

But many who fish the river — primarily Samoan, Tongan, Vietnamese, Hmong, Lao and Russian immigrants — don't speak English. Some avoid contact with government officials, either because they fish illegally or are suspicious of officials. And state officials worry that even those willing to listen will be skeptical of their message.

"There are lots of people fishing that river, and some are subsistence fishing," said Marcia Henning, outreach coordinator for the state's Environmental Health Assessments. "Last year ... it took me over 200 phone calls just to find community leaders willing to talk to me about what members of their community were eating and how much."

During that time, the state talked to representatives of several immigrant communities, some of whom didn't even know the river was polluted from a century of industrial dumping. She couldn't make contact at all with fishermen from South Seattle's Russian community.

"It's an incredible challenge," said B.J. Cummings, coordinator for the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition. "We now know that if you're fishing seven days a week, that's not good. But telling people isn't easy."

The state plans to post signs in several languages and print fliers to run in several non-English publications.

They also plan to conduct presentation videos and recontact all community groups. But they're not convinced that will be enough to communicate the risks.

For example, the state wants to encourage people to continue to eat fish and to let them know that nonresident fish, such as salmon, are safe. Samples have shown PCB in English sole alone is up to 10 times greater than salmon. The state's safety margins also mean that people who eat more than the advised amount will likely be OK.

"We know how much is OK to eat, but we don't really know at what point it becomes too much," said Gary Palcisko, also with Environmental Health Assessments. "It's quite complicated."

Yesterday's announcement is part of a growing awareness of pollution in the Duwamish on the heels of its listing last fall as a Superfund cleanup site. The Environmental Protection Agency compiled data from years of study that found contaminants from arsenic to mercury along six miles of the river near South Park and Georgetown, where more than 100 storm drains and sewer overflows empty to the river.

Craig Welch can be reached at 206-464-2093 or