As rains pounded the Ala Wai Canal one day this March, Glenn Barbadillo, sat under a tarp amid canoes lined up near the McCully Bridge.
Construction material from a pool deck flowed into a nearby storm drain and out into the canal, turning a swath of the murky water white.
Barbadillo was unfazed by the junk he could see in the water — and even what he couldn’t. Instead, he was making a meal out of the crabs he’d just caught in the canal.
A homeless immigrant from the Philippines, he says he eats out of the canal daily, and sometimes serves up crabs to others hanging out in the park.
He says he often sells crabs to people in Chinatown for $20 each. The contamination doesn’t concern him, he said.
Civil Beat took two crabs and three fish caught by a reporter in to Honolulu’s Food Quality Lab for testing.
The tilapia came back positive for salmonella, frequently connected to food poisoning, and listeria, which can cause painful vomiting and diarrhea, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Listeria can be particularly dangerous, and even deadly, to people in poor health or to pregnant women. The bacteria can cause miscarriages and deadly infections in newborns. A multi-state outbreak in 2011 killed at least 29 people.
The tilapia and crabs also tested positive for nine heavy metals, including arsenic, lead and mercury.
“The fact that you have heavy metals showing up in these quantities is not good,” said Tai Khan, the lab’s owner. He noted that lead is implicated in brain damage and mercury in causing severe birth deformities.
The fish and crabs tested negative for pesticides, including dieldrin and chlordane, chemicals banned by the EPA in the 1980s, but that had shown up in tests of the canal as recently as the late 1990s.
“The general takeaway is that it is still a pretty polluted environment,” said Khan.
His recommendation: “Don’t eat the fish.”
But that advice falls on deaf ears when it comes to the homeless and others who regularly fish in the canal despite health department warning signs.
Elloise Ysaol (right) says she eats the fish and crabs out of the canal about once a week.
“I’m hungry, so I eat the crab,” said Elloise Ysaol, a homeless woman who has made the canal’s banks her home. She says she’s careful to cook the crabs well, adding milk, lemon and enchilada sauce.
Despite the presence of the contaminants, both Ysaol and Barbadillo say they haven’t gotten sick.
Gary Gill, deputy director for environmental health for the state Department of Health, says not much can be done to stop people from eating the fish and crabs from the Ala Wai Canal, other than posting warning signs.
And there are no rules against selling the crabs or fish either, Gill said.
Restrictions would apply to commercial seafood buyers who re-sell through fish markets and are subject to food safety requirements, he said.
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