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Originally published Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 7:10 PM

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Study finds life is shorter for some in the 98108 ZIP code

Some residents of the Duwamish Valley have more health problems than residents elsewhere in the city, an EPA-funded study finds

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Some Duwamish Valley residents are sicker and die younger than their neighbors just a scant 10 miles away, a new EPA-funded study has found. Residents of ZIP code 98108, in Seattle’s South Park, Georgetown and parts of Beacon Hill in the Duwamish Valley, are most likely to get sick and be exposed to environmental stresses, from pollution to lack of green space, the study found.

In the neighborhoods of South Park and Georgetown in particular, the cumulative effect was a shorter life — eight years shorter than other residents on average in Seattle and King County and 13 years shorter than the well-off neighborhood of Laurelhurst, according to the study.

The assessment took into account a wide range of factors, from exposure to diesel particulates and benzene in the air to childhood-asthma hospitalization rates.

“This should have been done years ago. We have always believed there was an unfair burden on the communities of South Park and Georgetown,” said James Rasmussen, coordinator of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, one of two Seattle nonprofits that released the $50,000 study.

Traditional risk assessments don’t provide a true picture of the peril communities face because the same stress could have a more dramatic effect on a more vulnerable population, said Linn Gould of Just Health Action, the other Seattle nonprofit that released the study, and its primary author.

“We know there are other effects that make you more vulnerable: stress on the body, wear and tear. That only makes you more vulnerable to disease,” she said.

While many of the individual findings in the report are not news, the overall picture the report paints needs attention, said Bill Daniell, an associate professor in the University of Washington School of Public Health, who helped advise the study.

“People may stand back and say, ‘Gosh, we knew that,’ but they are kidding themselves,” Daniell said. “The singular and most distinct aspect of this project is the concept of looking at everything at once. I contend we have never really had all the numbers in one place as we do in this report.

“It is very easy to undervalue or underestimate the value of any one problem when it is looked at in isolation, or not put in context.”

James Apa, spokesman for Public Health-Seattle & King County, said his agency is still assessing the report. But its marquee conclusion is no surprise.

“Place matters,” Apa said. “It is an area of priority for our department to address and come up with solutions so you don’t see these disparities.”

The report comes out as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) brings out its estimated $305 million cleanup plan for the Lower Duwamish, a Superfund site, for public comment. The plan is intended to clean up the most contaminated sediment in the river and reduce PCB contamination, in conjunction with the cleanup work already underway.

The 105-day public-comment period on the plan began Feb. 28.

The data in the new report could help inform cleanup decisions, said Pam Elardo, director of the solid-waste division for King County. “This report highlights the equity and social-justice reasons to drive a cleanup that is reasonable in duration, gets the contamination out the quickest and limits the impacts to make them as short as possible.”

The EPA will take the report’s findings into consideration in its assessment of the cleanup plan, said Hanady Aisha Kader, public-affairs specialist with U.S. EPA Region 10.

Improving life for residents in Duwamish Valley will take more than a cleanup program though, the report shows, with challenges facing residents there ranging from the heart-disease-death rate to poverty and too few parks.

The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition has awarded small grants to help several groups working on community projects, from getting the blackberries and ivy out of the green belt near the Duwamish to make it more inviting, to providing plant starts for home gardens for food-bank clients, and even funding for a chicken cooperative to help improve residents’ access to good fresh food.

“This report isn’t cause for despair,” Cummings said. “Now we understand better what needs to be done.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

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