An insider tour of the Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program

On Sept. 15, Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai and Dr. Mark Alexander hosted a virtual insider tour of the Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program primarily to show first-year medical students from UCSF what medical professionals can do to relieve the suffering from the toxic Superfund site in Bayview Hunters Point and the pollution that plagues many other low income communities of color. – Photo: Malik Washington

by Malik Washington

On Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, at 4 p.m., Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai and Dr. Mark Alexander hosted a virtual insider tour of the Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program. The event was organized by Katie Maloney, senior director of alumni relations for the University of California, San Francisco.

First-year medical students from UCSF were in attendance and listened intently as Dr. Sumchai and Dr. Alexander conducted the tour. Both are Bayview Hunters Point natives and graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in San Francisco.

Dr. Sumchai has proven herself to be a determined champion for the health, safety and welfare of all those who live and work in Bayview Hunters Point. 

The main topic of discussion here was the pioneering biomonitoring program created and conducted by Dr. Sumchai. She went into detail in regard to some of the results of this screening and the impact the results have on the health of the overall community.

As many of our Bay View readers know, the Hunters Point Shipyard has been suspected to be the origin and source of numerous radioactive and toxic hard metal contaminants that are now found in our bodies. For decades, the citizens of Bayview Hunters Point have speculated about whether the toxicity at the shipyard could be causing the unusually high rates of cancer and other life-threatening health problems in our community. 

The empirical data and objective analysis of Dr. Sumchai’s biomonitoring program have begun to reveal some remarkable answers. Dr. Sumchai has sought and been granted permission by her patients to reveal to the public some of the results of specific biomonitoring tests. 

Malik Washington, an acclaimed journalist recently released from prison and preparing to take on the position of editor of the Bay View newspaper, attended the virtual tour in person to get acquainted with Drs. Sumchai and Alexander and their essential work. – Photo: Malik Washington

The tests are revealing that numerous radionuclides, as well as toxic hard metals such as arsenic, are part of the “body burden” found in the bodies of people who live and work within a mile of the shipyard. These same toxins are also listed by the Navy and EPA as “contaminants of concern” at the shipyard. 

This was some of the information that Dr. Sumchai shared with the students. However, Dr. Sumchai went into even further detail by displaying maps and charts that tie these toxic contaminants to the shipyard.

The Hunters Point Shipyard is a federal superfund site and it is the largest redevelopment site in San Francisco. The question must be asked: “Why did the local, state and federal agencies that were supposed to prevent development until the shipyard was completely clean allow it to begin too soon? And now that hundreds of people have moved into the condos, why aren’t those agencies honestly monitoring and protecting residents, both the newcomers and the thousands who have lived around the shipyard for decades, from this toxic site that has caused and continues to cause so much pain and suffering in our community?”

As each day passes and Dr. Sumchai’s work progresses, we see a growing body of evidence connecting high rates of infant mortality and various forms of cancer and other dread diseases with the toxic Hunters Point Shipyard.

I was in physical attendance while Dr. Sumchai and Dr. Alexander conducted the virtual tour at Dr. Sumchai’s office at 5021 Third St. in the Bayview. I sat rapt as she articulated concisely and clearly the results of her testing.

Malik and Dr. Alexander stand in the office at 5021 Third St., next to the library, where Dr. Sumchai screens everyone who lives and/or works within a mile of the shipyard and wants to know whether radioactive and heavy metal toxins have made their way into their bodies. To make an appointment for screening, call Dr. Sumchai at 415-859-5471. – Photo: Malik Washington

Dr. Sumchai described how the U.S. Department of the Navy conceded that some radioactive elements likely originated from the Shipyard. Through her research, Dr. Sumchai has discovered the toxic, cancer-causing element thallium in a great number of the participants in her program. The Navy refuses to add thallium to the list of toxic elements originating from the shipyard.

These two beautiful and intelligent human beings are the “People’s Doctors.” I encourage everyone to support their work and demand that they receive the funding so desperately needed in order to continue the biomonitoring program.

There were key issues that I learned from this discussion, and I would like to share my observations with our SF Bay View readers:

  • Dr. Sumchai needs more funding in order to continue this necessary biomonitoring program, which serves the interests of the Bayview Hunters Point community.
  • There are very powerful corporate and political forces in San Francisco and beyond that do not want Dr. Sumchai and Dr. Alexander to continue their testing and research. The “powers that be” want to skirt liability for poisoning our people.
  • Dr. Sumchai is not just a remarkable physician and scientist – she is also a passionate and committed servant of the people who refuses to be bought off by chronic polluters and capitalist oppressors responsible for poisoning our people.
These EPA maps show that most pollution in San Francisco is in the southeast sector and is highest by far in Bayview Hunters Point.

More volunteers are needed for the biomonitoring program and it is important for all of us in the Bayview Hunters Point community to know and understand that this empirical data and scientific evidence she has collected can pave the way toward reparations given to residents of the neighborhood.

The doctor said during the tour that these prospective funds coming from the entities who have poisoned our people could be used to help victims recover from illnesses brought on by the toxic contaminants at the shipyard. Dr. Sumchai also said that it may be necessary for some people to move away from this toxic area altogether: In some cases, it is a matter of life and death.

This population breakdown shows the income disparity inside Bayview Hunters Point. The northernmost and southernmost parts of the neighborhood enjoy incomes as much as four times the incomes of families in Hunters Point (the yellow portion mistakenly called Hunters View on the map). Hunters Point is immediately adjacent to – and most likely to be poisoned by – the Hunters Point Shipyard, the easternmost promontory on the map.

Dr. Mark Alexander, Dr. Sumchai’s colleague and friend, stands in strong solidarity with her. Dr. Alexander was born and raised in Bayview Hunters Point. He has lived here his entire life and, like Dr. Sumchai, he is committed to preserving the health and safety of all of us who live and work in this community. 

These two beautiful and intelligent human beings are the “People’s Doctors.” I encourage everyone to support their work and demand that they receive the funding so desperately needed in order to continue the biomonitoring program.

As I end this piece, I want to bear witness to the remarkable teaching ability of Dr. Sumchai. All my life I have had aspirations and dreams to become a physician’s assistant or registered nurse. For me to be in the presence of not just one, but two Black doctors proved to me that all things are possible for our people.

The first-year UCSF medical students were extremely appreciative of the time Dr. Sumchai spent with them. On behalf of the entire staff at the San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper, I want to thank Dr. Sumchai and Dr. Alexander for the biomonitoring program and for allowing me to attend this virtual tour.

Dare to struggle, Dare to win, All power to the people.

Bay View Assistant Editor Malik Washington, who is preparing to assume the position of editor soon, is a co-founder of the End Prison Slavery in Texas Movement and an activist in the Fight Toxic Prisons and Liberate the Caged Voices campaigns. Malik is a comrade and friend of Oakland Abolition and Solidarity (ABOSOL), formerly an IWOC chapter, and a fellow worker in the fight to abolish prisons. Contact him at malik@sfbayview.com or, if you see news happening, call him at 669-216-6104.