Skip to main content.

Community health along the Duwamish River Superfund site

Community health along the Duwamish River Superfund site

Picture of Carol Smith

I am very excited to be a part of this year's National Health Fellowship program and to be embarking on the reporting for my fellowship project. My goal is to take a look at the health of the communities that live and work along the Duwamish River in Seattle. The Duwamish is not only Seattle's only river, and the original home of its first Native American people, it is now also an industrial waterway classified as one of the nation's worst toxic waste sites and one of the few federal Superfund cleanup sites in the country to bisect a major urban area.

Through this project, I hope to examine how this confluence of factors – location, history and industry – has shaped the health of the communities that have grown up around the river. While reams of data have looked at the health of the river, much less is known about the health of the people who depend on or live near its waters. The river runs through the communities of South Park and Georgetown, skirts West Seattle, and touches both Harbor Island and the City of Tukwila. It empties into Puget Sound, right where the Port of Seattle has its major operations.

Nearly a decade ago, the Environmental Protection Agency named the Duwamish a five-mile-long Superfund site.  Despite the already more than $70 million that have been poured into cleanup efforts, the river and areas surrounding it remain heavily polluted today. Complicating the mess are new classes of contaminants, such as phthalates, that weren't around when shipbuilders, cement makers, the Boeing Co. and others began to pollute the Duwamish early last century. In addition, storm runoff that includes raw sewage and other contaminants continues to defile the river from a wide swath of industrial Seattle. 

Parts of the Duwamish also run parallel to Interstate 5, and a 2008 study showed residents in the area, which include a large, diverse minority population, also face elevated cancer risks because of air pollution.

I will be looking  at several health variables that would be affected by life along the river, as well community factors that could contribute to chronic health problems.

My goal is to discover what these communities are, or could be, doing to improve their health outcomes, including building new, low-income housing with better bike and walking access, environmentally sound groundwater management, and building materials that don't "off-gas" or exacerbate respiratory conditions. I also hope to find out what, if anything, companies that operate in the area are doing to monitor or improve employee health. And whether government programs are helping or hindering efforts to improve wellness.


Picture of

[...] with KUOW to do a radio piece, and features in places like Business Insider, her story brought in a significant traffic spike and increase in Twitter followers. However, it’s important to keep in mind that Carol’s work [...]

Leave A Comment


The Center for Health Journalism is dedicated to supporting journalists covering two of the biggest stories of our time -- the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism and inequities in America. We provide reporters with intensive training instituteswebinars and tips about craft and content and are providing deep and sustained support for reporters and their newsrooms in this historic and difficult moment. You can donate through the USC web portal at this link:  Pressed for time? You can also text to donate! No amount is too small; just send a text to 41-444 and type the message CHJ for further instructions.


In this webinar, we'll look at how journalists can tell urgent stories as states reopen and workers are potentially forced to choose between their health and their economic survival. Sign-up here!


Follow Us



CHJ Icon