PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — While the Willamette River poses the perfect summer backdrop to boat or float the rapids, health officials warn the river’s lower region is not safe for many forms of fishing — and further cautioned that those who eat a catch from the contaminated waters could see serious health consequences.
In a notice Tuesday, the Multnomah County Health Department advised residents against eating contaminated fish within the Lower Willamette River, as consumption could lead to increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and liver issues, among other long-term health concerns.
“I’ve lived much of my life in the Portland area and thoroughly enjoy the outdoors like these friends who fish,” Multnomah County Fish Advisory Program Specialist Beth Appert stated. “It’s an environmental justice issue when folks who fish and eat resident fish from this river are putting their health at risk.”
The advisory was accompanied by an informational video put forth by the County’s Environmental Team, the Oregon Health Authority and ODFW as part of a joint effort to educate the public on the numerous health issues associated with eating contaminated fish.
The video outlines which fish people should avoid eating — as officials say people will not be able to discern the difference between the spoiled species and those that are good for consumption by just the naked eye.
“Contaminated fish do not look or act sick. If you fish between Kelley Point Park and the Sellwood Bridge, or in the Multnomah Channel to the Sauvie Island Bridge, there are some fish you shouldn’t eat,” the county explained. “Fish that live their whole lives in the Lower Willamette are highly exposed to contaminants in the riverbed. These types of fish should not be eaten, including carp, catfish, bass, and clams.”
According to health officials, the riverbed contamination, which was caused by decades of industrial pollution within the Portland Harbor, ultimately resulted in the collection of harmful toxins such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), dioxins/furans and pesticides.
Due to the overwhelming presence of pollutants within the region, the location was declared an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site in 2000.
While the Lower Willamette River contamination and consequential health risks posed to residents and the environment was so great that the site required cleanup in accordance with the Superfund law, the County said that effort is not expected to be finished for another 13 years.
Until the site is fully cleaned, county officials have continued to team up with the Oregon Health Authority and other environmentalist groups to spread the word to Portlanders about the many health risks associated with eating contaminated fish and shellfish.
“Fish that don’t migrate and spend their lives in the Lower Willamette River can accumulate toxic chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs,” OHA Toxicologist David Farrer said. “Health risks from these chemicals are the reason for the advisory that we have. Our fish advisories are intended to help people make healthy choices about the fish they eat.”
In addition to an increased risk of developing diabetes and heart disease, the Multnomah County Health Department warned consuming contaminated fish and shellfish could cause a decreased IQ, reduced birth weight in infants, a suppressed immune system, as well as liver and thyroid issues.
“As a healthcare provider with a background in public health education, I’m obligated to let people know that pollution in the Lower Willamette River is an issue to our health,” stated local fisher and chiropractor, Dan Yan. “The damage will be much less as long as we are aware of the harmful effects of the pollutants and try to avoid taking them in.”
For the County’s full list of safe and unsafe fish to eat, visit here.