The abandonment of precaution: A 10-year analysis of health outcomes in Bayview Hunters Point

The Third Street Light Rail Construction in 2005 exposed residents to miles of dust and toxic particulates. – Photo: David Wilson

Part 1

by Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, M.D.

In memory of Carlton B. Goodlett, Ph.D. M.D., and Arthur Coleman, M.D., J.D.

“There are four times as many residents in Bayview Hunters Point who suffer from asthma as there are in other areas of the city, according to a study released this year by the Department of Public Health. The study also found the neighborhood had the city’s highest concentration of pollutants linked to a plethora of chronic diseases rampant in public health studies including cancers and cardiorespiratory disorders.

“The high rate of asthma is especially troubling because it can masquerade as a cold or respiratory infection, according to a doctor and Bayview Hunters Point Health and Assessment Task Force member Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai. Sumchai remembers listening to the chests of children brought into her clinic in the Sunnydale housing projects for treatment of persistent ‘colds’ and finding the telltale wheezing of asthma.” – “For Bayview Kids, Asthma is a Way of Life” by Laura Peterson, The Independent, Nov. 18, 1997

On Sept. 19, 2006, Health Director Mitchell Katz and the Office of Policy and Planning of the San Francisco Department of Public Health released a 51-page report on health programs and recommendations in Bayview Hunters Point. The report is an admirable attempt to compile existing primary care, AIDS/HIV and mental health services outreaching to the 31,000 residents of this neighborhood in the city’s southeast sector.

The report analyzes population demographics and draws upon a vast public health data base to offer recommendations in key areas impacting environmental health, HIV/AIDS, behavioral health, nutrition and physical inactivity, maternal-child health, violence and injury prevention and primary care and prevention of chronic diseases, including the leading contributors to early death in the 94124 zip code: ischemic and hypertensive heart disease, stroke, lung and other cancers and HIV.

However, it contains numerous errors in factual data and documents little overall improvement in health outcomes in BVHP in the last decade, with a documented worsening in homicide rates. DPH data in conjunction with data from the California Birth Defects Monitoring Program and an October 2004 study by the University of California in San Francisco suggest a probable increase in infant mortality rates, rates of birth defects, selected cancer incidence and prevalence, obesity and inactivity in Bayview Hunters Point.

The DPH has conducted numerous studies of health in Bayview Hunters Point and documented alarming trends among African Americans, as well as Asian Pacific Islander and Hispanic populations. Studies of the genetic code in the human genome show that the human family is 99.9 percent alike. Therefore, disturbing differences in infant mortality, birth defects, liver or breast cancer incidence must be analyzed for environmental and lifestyle causes.

The DPH issues each year an overview of San Francisco’s health. These annual reports consistently show African Americans die from preventable diseases more than any other racial or cultural group in San Francisco. The African American Health Initiative and its network of community-based organizations convened two health forums in 2001. Catalysts for Change brought together African American leaders, elected representatives and health care providers to identify new ways to implement effective, culturally competent health services and programs for African Americans in San Francisco.

Cynthia Selmar, director of the AAHI, published a summary of five workshop topics. Environmental health was a priority workshop moderated by Karen G. Pierce, coordinator of the Bayview Hunters Point Health and Environmental Assessment Task Force, with panelists Dr. Dee Epps Miller, director of Southeast Health Center, and Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai.

According to Miller’s report “Condition Critical: The Bayview Hunters Point School and Community Childhood Asthma Survey Report,” BVHP contains less than 5 percent of the city’s population but carries the load of one third of the city’s hazardous waste sites. The report identifies that the Environmental Defense Scorecard shows the area to have four times as many toxins released as any other San Francisco neighborhood and to have four times the state rate of hospitalization for chronic illness.

Of 39 pollutants measured by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Bayview Hunters Point had the highest concentration at 20. Additionally, Miller cited DPH data showing the area harbors 700 hazardous waste material facilities, 350 underground petroleum storage tanks, designated brownfields sites and two Superfund cleanup sites, including the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.

This environmentally abused community is sited in District 10, the major city district zoned for industrial activities. Thus it contains a high concentration of private industries that pollute the air in addition to two power plants and a sewage treatment plant that processes 80 percent of the city’s raw sewage and handles 100 percent of the sewage from the suburban cities of Daly City, Brisbane and South San Francisco, all of which rest at a higher elevation than Bayview Hunters Point, causing raw sewage to run
the streets and coastline in southeast San Francisco, as recently documented in an article in the SF Weekly newspaper.

Bayview Hunters Point also contains most of the city’s diesel refueling sites, school bus yard, highway patrol car yards, taxi companies, passenger vanpools and tour van company depots. Additionally, the San Francisco Municipal Railway recently opened a new diesel refueling station in Bayview, which increases vehicle exhaust levels in the area. The recent construction of Third Street Light Rail created two miles of visible particulates and toxic dust as well as traffic congestion and risks to pedestrian safety.

Truck and automobile traffic is the major source of air pollution. Third Street is the main thoroughfare for trucks from private and government industries cutting through the residential neighborhoods to Highway 101.

In 2002 the National Environmental Trust released the study “Toxic Beginnings: Cancer risks to Children from California’s Air Pollution.” It analyzed the risk of cancer causing toxic air contaminants to children in high risk regions of the state and found the San Francisco Bay Air Basin to be in the top three in the state. The overwhelming majority of exposure comes from diesel particulate matter and four chemicals: butadiene, benzene, carbon tetrachloride and formaldehyde. Benzene and tetrachloride have been detected in routine air monitoring samples in Bayview Hunters Point and in indoor classroom air studies at George Washington Carver Elementary School in Bayview Hunters Point, where childhood asthma incidence has been reported to be as high as 30 percent.

DPH statistics in 2002 document an asthma hospitalization rate of greater than 451 per 100,000 people in Bayview Hunters Point, the highest rate in San Francisco. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency statistics in 2002 document greater than 20 tons of particulate matter emissions each year in Bayview Hunters Point, the highest rate in San Francisco. Particulates have been linked to asthma incidence and hospitalization as well as heart attacks and congestive heart failure.

The Bayview Hunters Point asthma task force formed in 1995 to respond to the asthma epidemic identified in the district by providing and fostering asthma education and outreach. The Asthma Resource Center of San Francisco was created in 1999 to serve as the legal and fiscal arm of the BVHP-ATF and to assist in the development of Dr. Arthur Coleman’s Bayview Hunters Point Health and Environmental Resource Center.

In March of 2005, Brian Katcher, Pharm.D., of DPH Community Health Promotion and Prevention, compiled data from the 94124 zip code, i.e., Bayview Hunters Point, on leading Health issues. Katcher analyzed hospital admissions and disease incidence and mortality based on gender, age and ethnic differences. He confirmed that the highest city-wide incidences of hospitalization for asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes and congestive heart failure arise in 94124, a neighborhood that also hosts residents with the lowest income. His study reproduced the findings of the landmark study released by DPH and UCSF researchers in July of 1997.

The Bayview Hunters Point Health and Environmental Assessment Task Force was established in 1996 with a mission statement, vision and voiced commitment to reducing Bayview Hunters Point residents’ exposure to toxic and hazardous environmental substances. HEAP was a partnership between DPH health professionals, environmental activists and government regulators and city government representatives. HEAP opposed the proposed siting of a new power plant in the community in 1997, argued for a moratorium on the siting of new polluting industries and rejected the adoption of development projects and construction activities with inadequate environmental reviews.

In the decade that has passed since its emergence, HEAP has lost its visionary direction and activist fervor. The African American Health Initiative became defunct with the retirement of Cynthia Selmar, and District 10 Supervisor Sophie Maxwell has abandoned environmental health and justice as a priority of her administration since assuming chairmanship of the Land Use and Economic Development Committee of the Board of Supervisors in 2004.

Maxwell reduced the seating on the Asthma Task Force this year and abandoned the Precautionary Principle as she champions three development projects: the Hunters Point Shipyard, Home Depot and the Bayview Hunters Point Redevelopment Project Area, all documenting negative unmitigable impacts to human health and the environment.

Contact Bay View Health and Environmental Science Editor Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai ay (415) 835-4763 or asumchai@sfbayview.com.