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Obama EPA to prioritize school air quality

January 31, 2009

by Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, M.D.

This is no ordinary grading. Lennar excavated and removed 35 feet of what was once a pleasant hilltop residential neighborhood, replacing the natural topography with this moonscape. – Photo: Francisco Da Costa
This is no ordinary grading. Lennar excavated and removed 35 feet of what was once a pleasant hilltop residential neighborhood, replacing the natural topography with this moonscape. – Photo: Francisco Da Costa
“There was clear evidence levels of asbestos exceeded mandated thresholds at both the fence line and in the community. The concentrations of dust could not be interpreted because of the sampling methods. The exposures did result in some increased risk for community residents, although it is not possible to quantify this risk.” – from a letter sent by Thomas Sinks, Ph.D., deputy director, National Center for Environmental Health, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, on Sept. 20, 2007, to Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, director of Environmental Health, San Francisco Department of Public Health

The January 2009 announcement that regulations safeguarding the air quality surrounding U.S. schools will be the top priority of the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should be welcome news in Bayview Hunters Point, where 17 schools and daycare centers are located within a one-mile radius of the Hunters Point Shipyard, a federal Superfund site.

According to the EPA, studies have shown that mortality and hospital admissions related to lung and cardiovascular disease increase on days with high particle air pollution. The EPA cites studies showing a link between exposure to particulates and increased respiratory symptoms, decreased lung function, aggravated asthma, irregular heartbeat and non-fatal heart attacks as well as chronic bronchitis. Additionally, EPA scientists are evaluating studies supporting an association between exposure to high particle levels and low birth weight infants, pre-term deliveries and fetal and infant deaths.

The Environmental Health Section of the San Francisco Department of Public Health in its 2004 Community Health Assessment found Bayview Hunters Point to be the community with the highest age adjusted rates of hospitalization for combined adult and pediatric asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and adult congestive heart failure. Hospitalization rates ranged from 500 to 2,317 cases per 100,000 population!

The EPA Office of Air and Radiation describes particle pollution as a “mixture of microscopic solids and liquid droplets suspended in air.” Also called particulate matter, this pollution contains soil or dust particles, diesel from vehicles and industrial machinery, metals and chemicals like asbestos, lead, arsenic and mercury, nitric and sulfuric acids, and organic particles including pollen, mold, hay and animal danders.

People with heart or lung disease, older adults and children are at greater risk from particle pollution, particularly when they are physically active. Exercise and physical activity cause people to breathe faster and more deeply and inhale more particles into their lungs.

The generation of toxic asbestos containing dust and particulates at the former Parcel A Shipyard site continues to be a lethal environmental health and safety issue as grading and construction activities by the Florida-based megadeveloper Lennar Corp. enter a third year.

In late December of 2008, air monitoring data released by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District show Lennar’s grading and construction operations at Parcel A “bulldozed” relentlessly forward and did not stop until Jan. 2, 2009, despite astronomical elevations in asbestos levels at community monitors detected Dec. 28 through Dec. 30.

The generation of toxic asbestos containing dust and particulates at the Shipyard continues to be a lethal environmental health and safety issue as grading and construction activities by the Florida-based megadeveloper Lennar enter a third year … with asbestos and particulate levels at air monitor HV9 – located adjacent to a residential complex – skyrocketing to over 296,000 structures per cubic meter Dec. 28-30.

Asbestos and particulate levels at air monitor HV9 – located adjacent to a residential condominium complex on Donahue Street – Asbestos and particulate levels at air monitor HV9 – located adjacent to a residential condominium complex – skyrocketed to over 296,000 structures per cubic meter (s/m3) during this three day period!

Air quality regulators at the BAAQMD rule that asbestos levels greater than 16,000 s/m3 require that the “responsible party notify BAAQMD immediately of the monitoring results, and immediately cease all construction and/or grading operations that may contribute to continued elevated levels until demonstrated that ambient monitoring results have decreased below 16,000 s/m3.”

The five day delay in shutdown of operations at the Lennar site did not go unnoticed by residents and environmental health and justice advocates in the city’s southeast sector. Meetings were held with local BAAQMD representatives who concede that over 700 exceedences in asbestos levels between the 1,600 s/m3 mitigation level up to the 16,000 s/m3 shutdown level have occurred since accurate project air monitoring by BAAQMD began in September of 2006!

The Shipyard’s Restoration Advisory Board reacted decisively to the continued negligence evident by the San Francisco Department of Public Health by kicking DPH mitigation engineer Amy Brownell off the RAB at its January 2009 monthly meeting. Brownell had maintained a permanent regulator seat on the RAB for almost 15 years, appearing as DPH signatory on the Nov. 16, 1995, Parcel A Record of Decision.

Brownell, a paid employee of Lennar, is the subject of an investigation by the California Board for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors stemming from her role in alleged concealment, minimization and fraud in the failure of DPH to properly investigate non-functioning air monitors at the Parcel A site at the start of Lennar’s grading activities from April 26, 2006, through Aug. 2, 2006, when accurate data finally disclosed dangerously high exceedence levels at the site. According to a DPH memorandum dated June 2007, there were complaints about dust from the very beginning of massive grading and earthmoving activities in April of 2006.

Lennar entered into a half-million dollar settlement with the air district in July of 2008 related to its violations of the California Health and Safety Code and admitted failure to properly monitor asbestos at Parcel A in 2006.

Exceedences above the shutdown level of 16,000 s/m3 level continued throughout 2007 and 2008, including a level of 24,000 s/m3 in January of 2007 in which the developer reportedly cited financial reasons for its failure to shut down!

In May of 2008 the Department of Public Health actively engaged in concealing extraordinary exceedences in asbestos levels to politically assist Lennar developers in a $5 million campaign supporting the Shipyard-Candlestick development plan just days before San Francisco voters went to the polls.

Lennar employees, represented by former Board of Supervisors president Angela Alioto, filed a lawsuit against the corporation in 2007. In sworn depositions, they alleged being threatened by superiors not to disclose the findings of internal air monitors, which documented enormous elevations in asbestos levels at the construction site throughout 2006. That lawsuit was ultimately settled.

The design for the Candlestick Point-Hunters Point Shipyard transportation plan has come under fire by environmental planning groups concerned with a project that results in “less parkland, fragmented habitats and a bridge traversing a natural waterway.”

Environmentally sensitive areas located on and in the vicinity of the Shipyard include wetland habitats as well as daycare centers and schools. Numerous plant and animal species exist along the undeveloped southern Shipyard shoreline, including waterfowl and shorebirds. The endangered peregrine falcon and small animals, including raccoons, opossum, harbor seals and burrowing owls, forage and feed in the waters off the Shipyard’s shoreline.

The transportation plan includes a controversial six-lane bridge over Yosemite Slough to carry traffic between the proposed Hunters Point stadium and Highway 101. The stadium will be used no more than eight times a year and the 49ers continue to express no interest in returning to San Francisco from their preferred site in Santa Clara.

Lennar president and CEO Stuart Miller expressed the top priority of his corporation in 2009 will be “cash generation.” Miller spoke candidly, in a recent media interview, of his expected “pay for play” from the Obama administration economic stimulus plan, which is projected to fund project-ready infrastructure development and transportation activities like the Shipyard Candlestick plan.

The recent announcement that Lennar Urban’s Kofi Bonner may be tapped by the Obama administration’s Housing and Urban Development Department fuels speculation that the $28,000 contribution Miller made to the Obama Victory Fund and the $37,000 contribution he made to the Democratic Party may translate to increased monetary and political support for a corporation that experienced a 41 percent decline in fourth quarter revenues in 2008.

Community health effects of chronic dust exposure

“Pneumoconioses develop from the deposition of dust particles in the lungs.” – “Medical Toxicology” by Seth Schonwald, M.D.

On March 10, 2004, a class action lawsuit was filed against the EPA on behalf of residents, students and workers exposed to toxins generated by the Sept. 11, 2001, destruction of the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan. At 9:59 a.m. the explosion of the World Trade Center towers blanketed New York with a thick cloud of toxic dust rising over 1,000 feet.

The WTC towers were built from 1968 to 1972. A slurry mixture of asbestos and cement was sprayed on as fireproofing material. In the days after Sept. 11, the EPA took air samples and reported they found no excess levels of asbestos, lead or volatile organic compounds in the air. The agency issued five press releases within 10 days assuring people the air was safe to breathe.

Contrary to these reports, dust samples did show very high levels of asbestos and on Aug. 21, 2003, EPA inspector Gen. Nikki Tinsley issued a report admitting the public reassurances were unfounded and that the EPA statements were prompted by the National Security Council under pressure from the White House.

Dr. David Pezant of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine presented the findings of a report on lung function of 12,079 firefighters during a 2005 meeting of the America College of Chest Physicians, many of whom worked at Ground Zero.

The study found rates of pulmonary decline up to 12 times greater than normal in firefighters exposed to the toxic dust at the Twin Towers explosion site. The average decline in lung function seen in Ground Zero workers was equivalent to 12 years of aging.

Reports of deaths attributed to exposure to Ground Zero toxic dust began to appear in early 2006. According to a January 17, 2006, Associated Press report, three men who searched for victims in the World Trade Center ruins died within a seven month period. The New York Post reported six 9/11 responders developed brain cancer and three had died. By June of 2006, 283 World Trade Center rescue and recovery workers had been diagnosed with cancer.

Dust exposure results in a huge cross section of acute and chronic pulmonary diseases. It is no less than fraud for health officials to state publicly that dust exposure is safe. Pneumoconioses develop from the deposition of dust particles in the lungs. Organic dusts from plants, animal danders and work environments produce reversible airway diseases like occupational asthma.

Fibrogenic dusts include exposure to asbestos, silica and aluminum cause physiological changes that are greater than the chest xray or exposure suggests. Patients present with shortness of breath, cough, chest pain, weight loss and fatigue. If you have these symptoms and live near the Parcel A site, you should demand a chest xray as a baseline and diagnostic study! The Bayview Hunters Point community is now entering its third year of chronic reckless exposure to toxic asbestos containing dust and particle pollution.

Dust exposure results in a huge cross section of acute and chronic pulmonary diseases. It is no less than fraud for health officials to state publicly that dust exposure is safe.

While experts claim chest xray evidence of asbestosis may not be present until five years post-exposure, studies in the scientific literature abound in which low level non-occupational exposures caused an increased risk of the cancer associated with asbestos exposure – mesothelioma – including a study in California supporting an association between residential proximity to naturally occurring asbestos and mesothelioma.

The toxic dust exposures at the Lennar Parcel A development site are eerily similar to the Ground Zero health risk coverup in which, according to a 2004 report by the Sierra Club, “gross malfeasance by EPA, FEMA and OSHA occurred” and where “the federal government ignored its own long standing body of knowledge about pollution from demolition and EPA failed to investigate and disclose toxic hazards that four independent tests found elevated to toxic levels.”

In an unsigned letter mailed and distributed broadly to residents living in proximity to the Parcel A site in 2007, San Francisco Department of Public Health Director Mitch Katz, M.D., declared that construction work at the Shipyard is “safe and will not cause long-term or serious health problems.”

In 2008, Thomas Sinks, Ph.D., author of the report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) on grading activities at Parcel A, came under investigation by the United States Congress for his role in the coverup of a toxic beryllium dust exposure he had investigated in the small community of Elmore, Ohio.

Dr. John Balmes, chief of the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at San Francisco General Hospital, breeched medical ethics in accepting payment by Lennar Urban, stating, “These health concerns predate Lennar’s construction activities and involve symptoms that are not associated with exposure to naturally occurring dust or asbestos.”

Asbestos-laced toxic dust swirls into the homes and schools on the other side of this fence whenever the wind blows on Lennar’s massive worksite at the Hunters Point Shipyard. – Photo: Francisco Da Costa
Asbestos-laced toxic dust swirls into the homes and schools on the other side of this fence whenever the wind blows on Lennar’s massive worksite at the Hunters Point Shipyard. – Photo: Francisco Da Costa
Balmes, consided to be one of the nation’s foremost physicians studying air-borne pollutants, failed to examine any of the children documented by DPH health nurses at five schools surrounding the Shipyard site to have an increased incidence of headaches, nosebleeds, asthma and school absences. Balmes received a high level state appointment shortly after his paid consultation on behalf of Lennar.

In spite of testimony by Dr. Katz at two school board hearings in October of 2007, the Board of Education of the San Francisco Unified School District voted unanimously in favor of shutting down operations at the Lennar site that month.

If you’re near the Shipyard, see your doctor

If you live, work or attend school within one mile of the Hunters Point Shipyard and have experienced on-going symptoms of cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue, weight loss, headaches, nosebleeds and unexplained neurological symptoms, see your doctor and request a chest xray and pulmonary function tests.

The following schools and daycare centers are locate within one mile of the Shipyard:

Bret Harte Elementary School, 1035 Gilman Ave.
Bret Harte Pre-K to Fifth Grade, 950 Hollister Ave.
Burnett Nursery and School-Age Center, 1520 Oakdale Ave.
Caheed Infant Daycare, 1030 Oakdale Ave.
Dr. Charles R. Drew Elementary, 59 Pomona St.
Frandelja Enrichment Center, 950 Gilman
George Washington Carver Elementary, 1360 Oakdale Ave.
Gloria R. Davis Middle School, 1195 Hudson Ave.
Bayview Beacon School, 1195 Hudson Ave.
Head Start, 125 Westpoint Road
Ideal Daycare, 1523 LaSalle Ave.
Karen’s Family Day Care, 1547 Innes Ave.
Kipp Bayview Academy, 1060 Key Ave.
Lucy Harbor Academy, 1744 Palou Ave.
Malcolm X Academy, 350 Harbor Road
Martin Luther King Child Care, 200 Cashmere St.
Muhammad University of Islam, 195B Kiska Road

Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, M.D.
Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, M.D.
Bay View Health and Environmental Science Editor Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai can be reached at (415) 835-4763 or asumchai@sfbayview.com.

3 thoughts on “Obama EPA to prioritize school air quality

  1. Bob Ryan

    Wow — as if the only thing these people will ever suffer harm from is some dust that may contain asbestos. What exactly are 296,000 “structures” per cubic meter?

    In June 1972, OSHA promulgated a new final standard that established an 8-hour TWA PEL of 5 f/cc and a ceiling limit of 10 f/cc. These limits were intended primarily to protect employees against asbestosis, and it was hoped that they would provide some incidental degree of protection against asbestos induced forms of cancer. Effective July 1976, OSHA’s 8-hour TWA limit was reduced to 2 f/cc and this limit remained in effect up to the effective date of the revised 1986 standards.

    WHile occupational exposure to asbestos is harmful and should be minimised or eliminated, is the measurement referenced above such that a cloud of dust “structures” blew past the monitor for 10 minutes, one hour or all five days? What amount of asbestos was in the measurement?

    All this article does is generate more controversy where none is necessary.

    Reply
  2. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, M.D.

    You seem to be missing the point. The most dangerous component of the toxic dust generated by Lennar at the shipyard for the last three years is not the asbestos…it is the particle pollution in the dust. We don’t have to wait for seven years for those exposed to develope asbestosis or mesothelioma…particulates trigger asthma, increase asthma hospitalizations, cause heart attacks and death from congestive heart failure within 48 hours of exposure. Remember that this is the community in the state with some of the worse air quality according to BAAQMD. It ranks in the 90th percentile for several toxic air contaminants. It is also the community the Legislative Black Caucus found to have one of the highest infant mortality rates and rates of hospitalization and death from chronic cardiopulmonary diseases including congestive heart failure, adult and pediatric asthma and heart attacks. The infant mortality rate in Bayview Hunters Point for Black infants increased from 12.5 per 1000 births to 15 per 1000 births…indeed, the infant mortality rate is higher for all ethnic groups in BVHP suggesting an environmental link.
    You seem to be minimizing a problem the Federal CDC, the California Department of Public Health and the BAAQMD took seriously enough to investigate, and have recently announced they will reinvestigate. Also recall that four African American Lennar employees were granted a significant settlement in a lawsuit bought by former Board President Angela Alioto on grounds that they were threatened not to reveal air monitoring data which documented astoundingly high levels of this dust that you find so unimportant. I presume you have been payed by Lennar to downplay this article!

    Reply
  3. Bob Ryan

    Hmmm. I think that it’s great that you agree that asbestos is not a problem. I also note that you truly seem to inject race into the equation “Legislative Black Caucus”, “infant mortality rate in Bayview Hunters Point for Black infants”, “African American Lennar employees”… can there be other reasons that these individulas have lung problems (does anoyne smoke in the home)? Angela Alioto, please.

    By the way Doc, it would be “paid” not “payed” and no, no one is paying me, unlike you, to paint a unfairly bleak picture of a business.

    Reply

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