A Policy Brief on Fish

Contamination and Consumption in
Richmond, California

Prepared for:
Caleb Feldman
Ma’at Youth Academy
caleb.feldman@gmail.com

Prepared by:
Shi, Yi
University of California, Berkeley
shiyical@berkeley.edu
05/01/2014

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Executive Summary
This policy brief reviews the fish contamination issue and unsafe fish consumption practices
in Richmond, California. It highlights the change in demographics and economy in Richmond,
the shift in fish consumption pattern of the Richmond angler community, and the increasing
contamination in the fish of Richmond waters over the past decade. This policy brief
recommends Ma’at Youth Academy (MYA) to update its current mercury campaign by
conducting a longitudinal study on the demographic characteristics and fish consumption
pattern of the Richmond angler community.

Fish Contamination and Consumption
Consumption of fish with elevated toxin level from water bodies around Richmond,
California has been shown to pose health concern.1 Unacceptable level of toxic chemicals such
as mercury, PCBs, dieldrin and DDT have been found in fish species in Richmond Bay and
San Pablo Reservoir.2, 3 Since a significant number of Richmond residents consume fishes
from these water bodies on a frequent basis,4 the California Office of Environmental Health
Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) has disseminated health advisories around Richmond Bay
since 1994 and around San Pablo Reservoir since 2000.5
Despite efforts by OEHHA and the local governments to increase public awareness
of fish contamination and to reduce unsafe fish consumption practices, a 2001 official report
on seafood consumption at San Francisco Bay has found that the impact of state health
advisory on fish consumption behavior is limited.6 A small-scale survey study conducted by
the Ma’at Youth Academy (MYA) in the early 2000s on anglers at Richmond Harbor and San
Pablo Reservoir has also found a significant lack of awareness towards fish contamination and
a predominant mode of unsafe fish consumption practices.7

n.d. "Safe Eating Guidelines for Fish from San Pablo Reservoir." The Californian Office of Environmental
Health Hazard Assessment. February 2009. Accessed April 20, 2014.
http://oehha.ca.gov/fish/so_cal/pdf_zip/SPAFactsheet0209.pdf.
2 Ibid.
3 n.d. "San Francisco Bay Advisory Frequently Asked Questions." The California Office of Environmental
Health Hazard Assessment. Accessed April 20, 2014.
http://oehha.ca.gov/fish/nor_cal/pdf/SFBayFAQ052311.pdf.
4 California Department of Health Services. 2001. "San Francisco Bay Seafood Consumption Report." San
Francisco Estuary Institute. Accessed April 10, 2014. http://www.sfei.org/node/2022.
5 Ibid. (1) and (3)
6 Ibid. (4)
7 Fuller, S., Speth, K., Jackie Tsou, J., Browne-Dennis, T.. 2003-2005. A Community-led Survey of Fish
Consumption Behaviors of Anglers at the Richmond Harbor and San Pablo Reservoir. Richmond: Ma'at Youth
Academy.
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Background
Richmond, California has a long history of industrial development. It stays in a ring of
four major oil refineries within its 20 mile radius, as well as hosting three chemical companies
and two Superfund sites.8 The historical gold and mercury mining has released a large amount
of mercury into Californian water bodies.9 The mercury has been decomposed by bacteria into
methylmercury, a more toxic form of mercury.10 This toxin is then passed up along the aquatic
food chain, leading to the significant level of methylmercury accumulated in fish in both
Richmond Bay and San Pablo Reservoir.11 Also, the use of PCBs as coolants and lubricants in
electrical equipments in the past has resulted in a significantly high level of PCBs in fish species
in Californian urban waters. 12 Furthermore, unsafe level of dieldrin, formerly used as an
insecticide, has been found in fish species in San Pablo Reservoir.13 Even though PCBs and
dieldrin have been banned in 1979 and 1989 respectively, their long lifetime in water allows
them to stay in the environment for decades.14
The Lauritzen Channel at Richmond Harbor hosts the United Heckathorn Superfund
site, which was contaminated by DDT discharged by the chemical company, United
Heckathorn, for decades until 1990s.15 In spite of a decade of remediation effort, a recent fiveyear review conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered that the
current DDT concentration in fish has risen to a level higher than that before the cleanup in
1994. In fact, the DDT concentration in anchovies of Lauritzen Channel have increased 30
times since 1994, while that in surf perch has returned to the same level as measured in 1994.16
Therefore, contamination in the fish of Richmond waters remains to be a serious concern
today.
Even though the state health advisories have been issued and signs have been set up
around the Richmond Bay, OEHHA and the local government have not succeeded in raising
the health awareness of anglers in Richmond and to reduce their unsafe fish consumption
behaviors.17 There are three reasons for the unsatisfactory impact of the state health advisories.
First, there is an influx of immigrants in Richmond over the period of 2000-2010,
predominantly Hispanics and Asians - many of them foreign born. 18 Thus, anglers in
Kay, J., Katz, C. 2012. Pollution, Poverty, People of Color: The factory on the hill. Environmental Health News.
June 4. Accessed April 20, 2014. http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/2012/pollutionpoverty-and-people-of-color-richmond-day-1.
9 Ibid. (3)
10 Ibid. (1)
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid.
15 Environmental Protection Agency. n.d. United Heckathorn Co. Accessed April 19, 2014.
http://yosemite.epa.gov/r9/sfund/r9sfdocw.nsf/vwsoalphabetic/United+Heckathorn+Co.!OpenDocument&
Start=1&Count=200&Collapse=1.
16 Dreier, H. 2012. Richmond Superfund Site Toxic Pollution Increasing. Contra Costa Times. January 3.
Accessed April 19, 2014. http://www.contracostatimes.com/top-stories/ci_19668577.
17 Ibid. (4)
18 n.d. Richmond, CA Historical Place of Birth and Citizenship Data. USA.COM. Accessed April 20, 2014.
http://www.usa.com/richmond-ca-population-and-races--historical-place-of-birth-and-citizenship-data.htm.
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Richmond may consist of a population that has limited local fishing experience and English
skills who tend to ignore the state health advisories. Though many health advisory posters are
displayed in several languages, new anglers may likely ignore them as they have been less
exposed to public health campaigns and are unfamiliar with the safe eating notices. Second,
the California Department of Health Services has found that Asian communities tend to eat
fish skins and organs which contain a higher level of mercury, PCBs or dieldrin. 19 Since
culinary habits are not easily alterable, Asian communities, which have been growing in size
due to the immigrant influx, are more exposed to fish contamination. Third, the economic
depression since 2008 has left a higher proportion of Richmond community unemployed.20
This implies a higher likelihood of subsistent fishing practices around Richmond, as more
people are unable to afford to buy food at stores or supermarkets. Therefore, the lack of
impact from the state health advisory action calls for stronger local public awareness
campaigns on fish contamination and safe consumption practices.
MYA’s Interest
Over the past decade, MYA has been promoting public health awareness regarding
safe consumption of fish from Richmond water bodies in clinics and schools.21 By involving
youth volunteers from various Richmond high schools in the mercury campaign, MYA has
helped to empower young volunteers to take charge in tackling public health concern brought
about by fish contamination.22 The recent influx of immigrants, the unsafe culinary habits of
specific ethnic groups, the increase in unemployment rate and the increase in contamination
level in fish species around Richmond Harbor are compelling reasons for MYA to take another
round of action in raising public awareness on fish contamination and consumption.
Preexisting Policies
The OEHHA, the Contra Costa County and the City of Richmond have coordinated
in the dissemination of State Health Advisories, in the form of brochures, posters and signs
around the Richmond Harbor and San Pablo Reservoir.23 However, both the state official
report and the MYA study has shown that the impact of the advisories is not significant.24
MYA conducted two sets of surveys in 2003 and 2005 on local fishermen at three piers:
Richmond Harbor, Point Pinole and San Pablo Reservoir.25 The 2003 survey included both
males and females, while the survey for 2005 only focused on women and children. The
organization subsequently developed and implemented a public education campaign from
2008 to 2011, at local WIC (Women, Infants and Children) clinics, community health fairs and

Ibid. (4)
n.d. Richmond, CA Historical Employment Status Data. USA.COM. Accessed April 20, 2014.
http://www.usa.com/richmond-ca-population-and-races--historical-place-of-birth-and-citizenship-data.htm.
21 n.d. Ma’at Youth Academy. Accessed April 10, 2014. http://maatya.org/
22 Ibid.
23 n.d. Fish. The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. Accessed April 20, 2014.
http://oehha.ca.gov/fish.html
24 Refer to the Fish Contamination and Consumption section on page 2.
25 For any inquiries, please contact MYA at mya@maatya.org
19
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in public high schools.26 The mercury campaign aims to raise public awareness of the health
concern of consuming mercury-contaminated fish.
Policy Options
MYA should consider carrying out a comprehensive fish consumption study for an
updated public awareness campaign. The study should aim to garner new information on the
demographics of the Richmond community that consume locally-caught fish. It should also
aim to assess the community’s awareness of the fish contamination and health advisory.
Building upon the past surveying experience, new information can be gathered via a carefully
designed survey process. The analytical results of the survey will be compared and contrasted
with previous research results. The conclusion of such longitudinal research will then be used
to update the public campaign messages.
Another policy option for MYA is to continue with the status quo. MYA’s small-scale
survey study in the early 2000s was a community-based, community-led research that
effectively involved youth volunteers as interviewers. The subsequent public education
campaign at clinics, fairs and schools has since then disseminated important advisories
regarding mercury contamination in fish and safe consumption. The dissemination of health
advisories at various venues has become a tradition at MYA ever since.27
Yet another policy option for MYA is to shift the currently MYA-led campaign to a
youth-led campaign. Instead of organizing the campaign, MYA can instead focus its resource
on training youth volunteers to organize campaigns and educate the public themselves.
Pros and Cons of Policy Options
Given MYA’s experience on public education campaign, the status quo policy option
is effective to a certain extent. The campaign organizing experience at MYA effectively
empowers youth volunteers to be the ambassador of the educational messages. Continuing
the existing mechanism also means a relatively efficient use of resource and funding.
However, the MYA mercury campaign has not addressed other toxic chemicals such
as PCBs, dieldrin and DDT, which also have accumulated at an unacceptable level in the fish
of Richmond waters. The framing of the campaign on mercury specifically may help to focus
campaign resource more efficiently and to get messages across more effectively. However, it
overlooks other toxic chemicals that are abundant in fishes of the local water bodies. The
public has a right to be informed of all information on fish contamination. Information on
other toxic chemicals in contaminated fish, which are also hazardous and abundant, should be
disseminated to the Richmond angler community.
Furthermore, over the past decade, there has been significant change in demographics,
economy, fish consumption pattern, and fish contamination level in Richmond. Continuing
the existing mercury campaign (where most volunteers speak English only) may conveniently
miss marginal communities such as Asian immigrants who may have difficulty communicating
26
27

Ibid.
Ibid. (21)

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in English. Also, the status quo neglects different risks to fish consumption that arise from
culinary difference among ethnic groups. The existing mercury campaign may be effective to
empower youth volunteers, but its information may not serve the Richmond community’s
interest effectively.
An updated public awareness campaign, on the other hand, draws on the strength of
the existing campaign while encompassing the new changes in the community. A
comprehensive longitudinal study will help to pinpoint the specific changes in the fish
consumption pattern of the Richmond angler community. In the light of the increase in
Hispanics and Asian population in Richmond, MYA may need to develop new campaign
approaches based on the longitudinal study results. These include educating the angler
community via non-English languages, understanding and modifying their fish preference,
preparation and cooking methods, and informing them of other toxic chemicals in fish
contamination. MYA can set up a language training program for youth volunteers who speak
a second language. The program should aim to educate youth volunteers to raise public
awareness in fish contamination and consumption, using languages that cater to the specific
ethnic community. Since youth volunteers are community members, they have a broader and
more intimate access to the community. By informing the ethnic communities of different
risks in eating and cooking fish via their respective native languages, MYA will find its
campaign messages more easily accepted and more clearly understood by the local
communities.
The longitudinal study and language training program may take up human and
financial resources. However, MYA can consider including bilingual educators as volunteers
for language trainers, as well as inviting college students to participate pro bono in the design
and analysis stages of the longitudinal study. Meanwhile, youth volunteers will continue to be
instrumental as surveyors in the longitudinal study and as ambassadors in the public campaign
process.
Lastly, the policy option on shifting the currently MYA-led campaign to a youth-led
campaign can be the most empowering option, but the least viable one financially. By letting
the youth to take charge in designing, fundraising and organizing the public awareness
campaign, MYA will maximize its impact in the leadership development of the youth
volunteers. However, the training on campaign-organizing for youth volunteers may be rather
costly. Such policy option may pose additional concern on responsibility allocation. It is
unclear who will take the responsibility for any issues that arise from the public campaign.
Policy Recommendation
The above analysis shows that the policy option to conduct a comprehensive
longitudinal study for an updated campaign is both up-to-date and cost-effective. It is specific
in its approach in assessing the demographic characteristics of the community and their fish
consumption patterns. The results from the longitudinal study, along with the language
training program, will help MYA to create and deliver campaign messages that will truly serve
the interests of the vulnerable communities in Richmond.

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Reference
1. n.d. "Safe Eating Guidelines for Fish from San Pablo Reservoir." The Californian
Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. February 2009. Accessed April
20, 2014. http://oehha.ca.gov/fish/so_cal/pdf_zip/SPAFactsheet0209.pdf.
2. n.d. "San Francisco Bay Advisory Frequently Asked Questions." The California
Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. Accessed April 20, 2014.
http://oehha.ca.gov/fish/nor_cal/pdf/SFBayFAQ052311.pdf.
3. California Department of Health Services. 2001. "San Francisco Bay Seafood
Consumption Report." San Francisco Estuary Institute. Accessed April 10, 2014.
http://www.sfei.org/node/2022.
4. Fuller, S., Speth, K., Jackie Tsou, J., Browne-Dennis, T.. 2003-2005. A Communityled Survey of Fish Consumption Behaviors of Anglers at the Richmond Harbor and
San Pablo Reservoir. Richmond: Ma'at Youth Academy.
5. Kay, J., Katz, C. 2012. Pollution, Poverty, People of Color: The factory on the hill.
Environmental Health News. June 4. Accessed April 20, 2014.
http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/2012/pollution-poverty-andpeople-of-color-richmond-day-1.
6. Environmental Protection Agency. n.d. United Heckathorn Co. Accessed April 19,
2014.
http://yosemite.epa.gov/r9/sfund/r9sfdocw.nsf/vwsoalphabetic/United+Heckatho
rn+Co.!OpenDocument&Start=1&Count=200&Collapse=1.
7. Dreier, H. 2012. Richmond Superfund Site Toxic Pollution Increasing. Contra Costa
Times. January 3. Accessed April 19, 2014. http://www.contracostatimes.com/topstories/ci_19668577.
8. n.d. Richmond, CA Historical Place of Birth and Citizenship Data. USA.COM.
Accessed April 20, 2014. http://www.usa.com/richmond-ca-population-and-races-historical-place-of-birth-and-citizenship-data.htm.
9. n.d. Richmond, CA Historical Employment Status Data. USA.COM. Accessed April
20, 2014. http://www.usa.com/richmond-ca-population-and-races--historical-placeof-birth-and-citizenship-data.htm.
10. n.d. Ma’at Youth Academy. Accessed April 10, 2014. http://maatya.org/
11. n.d. Fish. The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.
Accessed April 20, 2014. http://oehha.ca.gov/fish.html.