Community health advocate Q&A: Families, fish and the Duwamish Superfund site

By Dr. Shirlee Tan, Sinang Lee and Khanh Ho from the Duwamish Seafood Consumption program at Public Health – Seattle & King County

October is Children’s Environmental Health Month! Oh, you didn’t know? This month may be better known for ghouls and goblins, but our Lead and Toxics Team has put together a series of blog posts that are sure to give you goosebumps. Check out our posts on toxics, lead and community outreach.

Fish are a healthy component of many diets, but depending where fish spend their time, they can pick up contaminants like mercury or polychlorinated bipheyls (PCBs) in their bodies. These chemicals are introduced to the environment from industrial and historical uses and enter the food chain, accumulating in seafood, marine mammals and humans. When people eat seafood from contaminated waters, they are exposed to these chemicals.

More than 20 ethnic groups currently fish in the Duwamish River, which is a highly contaminated superfund site that runs right through South Seattle, along the South Park and Georgetown neighborhoods. To address the disproportionate burden of health risks associated with consuming PCB-contaminated seafood among low-income and immigrant/refugee fishing communities in the Duwamish River Superfund site, we launched a community-based program to confront the long-standing environmental justice issues associated with seafood consumption and fishing in the lower Duwamish Valley. This program, established through a cooperative agreement with the US Environmental Protection Agency, engages affected communities in designing culturally-appropriate health promotion tools and building community capacity for sustainable outcomes.

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We talked with Mai Hoang, a Vietnamese-speaking community health advocate who is working with us at Public Health – Seattle and King County.  She shared what drives her work as well as some of the challenges she encounters in sharing this information with her community.

Q: Mai, how did you become a community health advocate? What makes you fit for the job?

I was recruited by a local organization called Just Health Action that worked with Public Health. They were looking for someone in the area who could help share information about the Duwamish Superfund site, and I was excited for the opportunity.

Besides being interested in the work, I’m a woman, a mother, and a food provider for my family. I know what it’s like to weigh the pros and cons when making choices about what to feed my family, and I want to help others make informed decisions too. I’m in a unique position because these are my neighbors and friends, and I understand what’s important to them.

Q: What kinds of things do you do to reach out to your fellow community members?

In many ways, I simply offer more opportunities to connect and learn about issues. I know many parents – like myself – who are busy with work and don’t have time to go to Public Health-sponsored events. I try to coordinate times to meet with people that are convenient for them. I like to think of myself as an extension of the larger agencies and non-profits doing this work too. And, of course, when people come to me with questions, I do my best to be a reliable and worthy resource.

A group of Duwamish Healthy Seafood Consumption community health advocates with staff from Public Health and Duwamish River  Cleanup Coalition.

Q: Why is your work around Duwamish so important?

Simply put, kids are our future. The issues around fishing in the Duwamish affect adults, but our children are especially vulnerable. If I know all of this information about the destructive effects of the fish and I don’t do my best to share it, then I am essentially putting my neighbors – and our future – in harm’s way.

Q: What kind of advice do you offer?

I often stress that preventing illness is much easier than treating illness. But, we’re talking about real people and real food – so it can be tricky. I try to encourage people to talk about what they’re eating. For instance, if a friend gives you a gift of seafood, you can ask in a polite and humble manner, “What kind of fish is this? Where is from – and how do you prepare it?” This conversation shows you are grateful and curious, and it also helps you understand if you are at risk.

We also talk a lot about the parts of the fish that are the most risky. Some people think the head and fat of the fish are tastiest, but those parts can also be the most contaminated. This can be confusing, so I try to help people understand that taste and health aren’t necessarily related.

Q: What are your goals as a community health advocate?

I’d love to expand this program to reach schools. They say “if it rains long enough, then the earth will be wet.” If one kid knows about this issue, that’s great. But ten? That’s even better. I think it’s important to start with kids so that this message is shared for future generations.

Mai Hoang with fellow CHAs, Ivonne Vigo and Luis Amado.jpg
Mai Hoang with fellow community health advocates, Ivonne Vigo and Luis Amado.

For more information about fishing and advisories, read our previous blog post and check out our website.

fun to catchPublic Health’s Duwamish Seafood Advisory program has been branded with the logo “Fun to Catch, Toxic to Eat.”  Established through a cooperative agreement with the US EPA, the program is working with partners in the community such as the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, Just Health Action, and Environmental Coalition of South Seattle (ECOSS).

Originally posted on October 27, 2017.