Superfund Research Program

August 2021

Researchers from the NIEHS-funded University of Washington (UW) Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center found new evidence that environmental contamination from a former smelter in Ruston, Washington may pose a threat to human health in surrounding areas. Before publishing the results, the team reached out to coordinate risk communication strategies with agency partners and share the findings with potentially affected communities.

One individual in a red jacket sitting in boat looking over the edge of the boat into a tube, three individuals in waders standing around the boat in a lake surrounded by trees

Researchers on UW SRP Project Four collect samples to detect arsenic in urban lake systems.
(Photo courtesy of UW SRP Center)

The Commencement Bay, Nearshore/Tide Flats Superfund site is located in the cities of Tacoma and Ruston, Washington. When the smelter in Ruston closed in 1993, it left more than 1,000 square miles contaminated with heavy metals, including lead and arsenic, which leached into water bodies.

It was thought that sediments in nearby urban lakes kept arsenic contained and out of the food chain. In their study, the UW SRP Center researchers found that the contaminant can be found in shallower lakes and near shore. Under these conditions, arsenic can be taken up by aquatic plants like phytoplankton and make its way into organisms commonly consumed by humans, like snails and crayfish.

The research team convened a virtual community meeting to share their findings with one of the lake communities. Fifteen citizens and multiple representatives from local and federal agencies attended, including the Washington Department of Ecology, Washington Department of Health, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 10, Public Health-Seattle and King County, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, King County. The session was recorded for all participants of the live session and was made available online.

a multicolored web of dotted lines with five circles containing images of people wearing face masks
The World Health Organization defines risk communication as the real-time exchange of information, advice, and opinions between experts or officials and people who face a threat (hazard) to their survival, health, or economic or social well-being.

In coordination with the UW SRP Community Engagement Core, the team also reached out to the Muckleshoot and Puyallup Tribes to establish whether Tribal members typically harvest food from the contaminated lakes.

Since the project researchers have consistently communicated with these groups about their research plans and updated them on their findings, the news was well received. Community members asked about other exposure pathways that the center has not yet assessed, like gardening or swimming, which the team hopes to follow up on.

After the meeting, some representatives offered to help communicate the research findings to prevent harmful health effects in potentially affected communities. For example, they calculated meal limits for each type of organism found to be contaminated with arsenic to help consumers understand how much of each type of food is safe to eat. They presented results of these calculations in a follow-up meeting. Other representatives requested an additional meeting to discuss expanding arsenic sampling to other nearby lakes.

For more information on risk communication, check out this Environmental Factor article on the recent SRP Risk Communication workshop.