Thursday, August 4, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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State: Don't eat fish from Duwamish

Seattle Times staff reporter

Warning about Duwamish fish

The state Department of Health advises:

Don't eat crab, other shellfish or fish that live much of their lives in or around the lower Duwamish River, because of high levels of toxic PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls. That includes English sole, perch and flounder. Salmon can still be eaten.

The affected area is from Harbor Island upstream to near the southern end of Boeing Field.

Don't eat the fish in the lower Duwamish River.

That was the simple message yesterday from the state Department of Health, after new tests showed the fish had toxic PCB levels much higher than found in earlier tests.

But delivering the message to the river's fishermen won't be so straightforward. Many are part of immigrant communities with language or cultural barriers to government outreach. Others are homeless.

"You're going to have a hard time finding the people who are taking the fish," said B.J. Cummings, coordinator of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, a collection of community groups monitoring federal Superfund cleanup of the river, which runs through the industrial heart of South Seattle.

"There are absolutely people who are eating fish from the river. Some of them every day."

The latest tests, done last fall by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), found PCB levels well above safety thresholds, an average 716 parts per billion in the skinless fillet of an English sole, for example. Comparable tests between 1992 and 1999 found an average 267 parts per billion. An adult can safely eat only 8 ounces of fish a month with PCB levels of about 200 parts per billion, the Health Department says.

PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls, were banned in the 1970s after decades of industrial use. Exposure to high levels is linked to developmental problems in children and is a probable cause of cancer.

It's not clear why the latest tests showed higher pollution levels. It could simply be because the testing was more extensive this time. Or it could be that sediment stirred up by recent cleanup efforts has caused a temporary spike in contaminants, said Sheila Eckman, a manager for the EPA regional office.

The new advisory includes perch, flounder, English sole and crab. It doesn't cover salmon, because the fish don't spend their entire lives in or near the Duwamish. There already has been a warning against eating Duwamish shellfish other than crab.

The state Health Department has experience spreading the word. In 2002, it issued a warning for people to eat only one meal of Duwamish fish a month.

At the time, Marcia Henning of the Health Department courted leaders of local immigrant communities to help pass the message. Signs were posted in eight languages at various fishing spots along the river.

"Now that the advisory has changed, I will start calling the communities I started working with and tell them what's going on," Henning said.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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