by Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, M.D.
In loving memory of my father, George D. Porter
“Arsenic is the fiftieth most abundant element in the earth ‘s crust. It is widely known as a homicidal agent.” – Seth Schonwald, M.D. “Medical Toxicology”
Using a sophisticated detection method called “resonance testing” that detects the magnetic properties of atoms in toxic elements, the homicidal agent arsenic has been documented in the brain, lungs and thyroid of
nine school age children and adult faculty members in tests conducted at Muhammad University of Islam in San Francisco.
The school is located adjacent to Parcel A of the Hunters Point Shipyard, where Lennar Corp.’s residential construction activities were recently shut
down by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency due to exceedances in permissible levels of asbestos. Both asbestos and arsenic are naturally occurring toxins present in serpentinite rock, a component of the Franciscan Bedrock Complex which underlies Parcel A. Construction was shut down only after a storm of complaints to the Redevelopment Commis-
sion by parents and students.
A map of geologic units contained in the Hunters Point Shipyard Historical Radiological Assessment documents Parcel A to be largely comprised of serpentinite, with small regions of chert and colluvium. The vast majority of the Shipyard’s 500 acres is comprised of fill materials from grading and disposal of refuse and sandblast waste.
Parcel A of the Shipyard was transferred to the City and County of San Francisco in late 2004 amidst an uproar of opposition by community residents and activists over the risks to human health and safety posed by residential development at a federal Superfund site. Numerous violations of ethical and financial conflict of interest statues are on file in the city’s Ethics Department and were reported to the Fair Political Practices Commission. Most center on the relationship between San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi with Lennar.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the Health, Planning and Redevelopment Commissions and the Department of Building Inspections ultimately approved the transfer of the contaminated 75-acre parcel despite a Finding of Suitability to Transfer for Parcel A document dated March 19, 2004, which identifies that asbestos and lead-based paint are present on Parcel A as environmental factors that require deed restrictions.
On Feb. 10, 2006, Jack P. Broadbent, executive director of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, directed a letter to this author, responding to
my challenge of Lennar’s Asbestos Dust Mitigation Plan for Parcel A which, amazingly, did not originally offer air monitoring for asbestos despite the exceptionally high risk of worker and community exposure.
“Dear Dr. Sumchai,
“The Bay Area Air Quality Management District would like to thank you for your comments regarding the above referenced Asbestos Dust Mitigation Plan. The Air District approved the plan on October 7, 2005. The approved plan requires the developer to conduct air monitoring for asbestos. In approving the plan, the Air District required Lennar/BVHP to con-
duct air monitoring to ascertain the effectiveness of the plan in limiting the exposure of the BVHP community to dust containing naturally occurring as-
bestos disturbed during construction activities on Parcel A.”
Beginning in August of 2006, air monitoring data at the Parcel A excavation site identified exceedances in asbestos levels, forcing the shutdown of construction activities approximately eight times, according to Shipyard workers. Additionally, the Department of Public Health and the Redevelopment Agency are in possession of documentation confirming that Lennar failed to comply with required measures to prevent worker and community exposures to toxic dust plumes emanating from the site.
Despite ample documentation, Department of Public Health representative Amy Brownell, a licensed engineer, is reported to have acted in collusion with Lennar/BVHP to conceal the risk of public health exposure to workers and the community. Brownell is the DPH representative to the Shipyard’s
Restoration Advisory Board and is closely aligned with the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development and its director Michael Cohen.
Brownell, who is not a licensed health professional, issued an email citing a workshop on asbestos control on Parcel A conducted by DPH and the organization Arc Ecology. The email is directed to “community members” and assures them that Lennar’s activities at Parcel A are safe. Additionally, Brownell is quoted by reliable sources as stating publicly that visible plumes of dust generated by construction on Parcel A are “not harmful.”
Although Brownell lacks public health training, she is tasked with oversight of Article 31 of the Health Code, a city ordinance with provisions for
protecting public health at the Shipyard. Article 31 documents the presence of numerous toxic contaminants on Parcel A and requires that “any applicant who will disturb more than 50 cubic yards of soil as
part of their building permit comply with Article 31.”
Additionally, the city has other laws requiring owners, contractors and developers to properly handle residual toxins on Parcel A. The Health Code, in Article 1, Section 581, states that property owners may not create a public nuisance on their property, such as asbestos, arsenic or lead contaminated dust.
More importantly, Health Code Article 26, Section 1625, states that vacant lots containing an attractive nuisance to children and that are accessible to children can be required to take action to prevent harm from lead or other toxic hazards.
At a public forum held in late October at Muhammad University on Kiska Road near the Parcel A site, a Shipyard excavation worker spoke who had been recently fired from his job and charged with criminal violations after a fight broke out between him and his supervisor over community and worker health risks posed by the elevated asbestos levels at the Shipyard
In a letter dated Dec. 16, 2006, Minister of Health and Human Services for the Nation of Islam Dr. Abdul Alim Muhammad wrote: “I was made aware of the fact that over the last year or more a construction project under way on a parcel of land next to the University is a contaminated site; and that the dust stirred up during the construction process was not properly
contained per government regulation. This has unfortunately produced a potential long term threat to the health and well being of more than 100 staff and students, who attend the university on that site, as well as the surrounding community.
“I can think of no reason why there should be any difficulty in getting the attention and concern of the Department of Health. It would seem to me that there should be no further disturbance of the soil on the construction site until the level of danger has been definitively determined.”
Despite the permanent risks to health posed by the asbestos and arsenic contained in the bedrock beneath Parcel A, the Redevelopment Agency authorized Lennar to resume its excavation activities in recent weeks.
During a visit to the University, Dr. Muhammad ordered resonance testing on nine faculty and children ranging in age from 5 to 55 years. All but one
had deadly arsenic in their body organs. Serpentine was detected in all those tested and antimony, an element commonly found with arsenic in naturally occurring iron ore, was also found.
On Monday, Dec. 19, 2006, San Francisco State University chemistry professor Peter Palmer and community scientist Ray Tompkins performed independent spectral analysis of a serpentine rock sample from the Parcel A construction site and detected elevated levels of the toxins iron, nickel and chromium.
A completed exposure pathway in environmental science consists of five elements: a source of contamination, transport though an environmental medium a point of exposure, a route of human exposure and an exposed population.
The Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry conducted a Public Health Assessment for the Hunters Point Shipyard in 1995 to decide whether nearby residents, base tenants and workers are exposed to contaminants migrating from the site. ATSDR evaluated the environmental and human components leading to human exposure to toxins at the Shipyard and identified several completed exposure pathways.
ATSDR determined the Parcel E industrial landfill, the Parcel E Bay Fill areas and on-site soil at the Shipyard to be completed exposure pathways in the 1995 study and identified toxic metals and other compounds to be sources of contamination.
The documentation of arsenic in the exposed population at Muhammad University is an unfortunate but revolutionary finding for environmental health and justice proponents in Bayview Hunters Point. It illustrates the powerful role the new sCience of bio-monitoring can play in assignment of risk, responsibility and liability for adverse impacts on community health by offending industries and corporations and negligent government oversight agencies.
Contact Bay View Health and Emvironmental Science Editor Dr Ahimsa Porter Sumchai at (415) 835-4763 or firstname.lastname@example.org.