Former Treasure Island resident announces hospitalization for coronavirus, implicating radioactive island dust

Otis Broughton – Photo courtesy Otis Broughton

‘I’ve been a fighter all my life. Ain’t no sense in stopping now.’

by Carol Harvey

“I got COVID. I can’t survive it.” 

This text message, sent Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, by a friend of Otis Broughton, was a punch to my gut. 

I met Otis in 2018. He has been a Facebook friend for two years. 

I checked his page. His top post said: “I came in contact with a door handle, now I got COVID-19. It’s bad enough my immune system is compromised. I have emphysema and I might not make it out of this. I’m on my way to check in. Hope I check out the right way.”

When I phoned Otis, he explained that, after testing positive for coronavirus, he rushed to Mount Zion medical center in San Francisco.

“According to the staff, I have SARS-COVID2. It was a good thing I came early to the hospital because they caught it in the preliminary stages before it turned into full-blown COVID-19.” 

The SARS-CoV2 virus enters the throat through the nose and mouth. It can stay in the throat before working its way down into the lungs. In full-blown COVID-19, lung tissues swell and fill with fluid and dead cell debris. This gluey mass blocks air transfer and has literally smothered to death 177,000 Americans as of Aug. 24, 2020.

Mr. Broughton took himself to Mount Zion when an uncontrollable cough wouldn’t stop. It was not a good sign that he also had difficulty breathing. His oxygen level was low. His blood pressure and heart rate kept dropping. He was put on a breathing machine, but he used it only when he needed it because it made him cough. 

“According to them, I’m getting better.” He felt he was receiving good care. This was barely reassuring. COVID can take people on a roller-coaster ride. Some survive. Some do not.

Otis updated his coronavirus status for his Facebook friends a day later. 

“Good morning, everybody. I want to start off by saying I appreciate all the shoutouts and prayers.

“A person really don’t realize how serious your life is until you’re put in a situation where your life can be taken from you.

“I’m on the floor in the hospital (where) everybody is fighting for their life; I’ve always been a helpful type of person and it makes me sad that I can’t help them. Hell, I’m fighting for my life too. 

“But I want y’all to know – those that personally know me – I appreciate you; we had our ups and downs, more UPS than Downs.

“They are doing everything to help me.

Otis believes that his lungs were pre-conditioned for coronavirus by the emphysema and COPD he developed breathing toxic island dust. Similarly, a radioactive object in his front yard is the likely cause of bone and tissue breakdown that made him unable to work, of his son’s asthma exacerbation, and breast cancer in his two daughters. 

A complete description of Otis and his family’s toxic history on Treasure Island continues below under the subheading “Otis Broughton’s family could not avoid Treasure Island’s toxins.” First, however, a clarification about the true rate of coronavirus infection on Treasure Island.

Does San Francisco’s official COVID-19 data tracker present an accurate infection rate for Treasure Island?

San Francisco is tracking daily the number of COVID cases and deaths and mapping them by neighborhood so as to “understand the impact of the pandemic, identify areas disproportionately affected, and inform the City’s response efforts. City public health officials can use this information, along with other relevant data on vulnerable populations, to direct resources to those most affected.”

That’s an admirable goal, but to be useful, it must rely on accurate data. The data for Treasure Island is not accurate. 

The San Francisco tracker divides the neighborhood infection rates – i.e. “Cases per 10,000 residents” – by severity into five categories and colors its map with the lightest shade of blue representing the lowest rate. Using data reported through Aug. 28, all the northernmost and westernmost neighborhoods’ rates are in the lowest category, with a rate of only 20-68 cases per 10,000. 

In the next higher category, 68-113 cases per 10,000, are Japantown, Western Addition-Fillmore, Mission Bay, Hayes Valley and OMI. Showing 113-168 cases per 10,000 are Soma, Potrero, Bernal, Portola and Outer Mission. The Mission, Excelsior and Visitacion Valley are in the next to highest category, 168-236 cases per 10,000 residents. 

Bay View readers will not be surprised that the neighborhoods with the highest rates of coronavirus infection, 236-332 cases per 10,000, are those with the highest rates of poverty and people of color – the Tenderloin and Bayview Hunters Point. Poor neighborhoods of color also typically report higher rates of illness and premature death due to environmental toxicity. 

The rate for Treasure Island, therefore, would be expected to be as high as that for Bayview Hunters Point, because both populations, comprised of mostly poor people of color, are exposed to severe toxicity from radiation and other contaminants left behind by the Navy. Yet according to the city tracker, the rate of COVID cases on Treasure Island is in the second lowest category, calculated at only 104.4 cases per 10,000 residents.

That rate is wrong because the tracker uses the wrong population for Treasure Island. The tracker sets the population at 3,064, a number that was accurate years ago. 

In their Friday, Aug. 28, SF Chronicle article, “Extremely unlikely that they will find anything,” Jason Fagone and Cynthia Dizikes report a more accurate population count: “The 400-acre island, a former naval base, is home to about 1,800 people.” However, they do not acknowledge that in the two years between 2018 and 2020, the number of Treasure Island residents has dropped from 1,800 to around 1,300. (Further discussion on population figures appears below.)

The number of Treasure Island coronavirus cases as of Aug. 28, according to the city’s tracker, is 32. Assuming a population of 1,800, the correct infection rate would be 166.7 per 10,000 residents, much higher than the tracker’s 104.4. If the population is actually only 1,300, the infection rate would be 230.8. Those rates put Treasure Island in either the highest or next to highest category. The rate of 230.8 would be the third highest in San Francisco, behind only Bayview Hunters Point, with a rate of 331.6 cases per 10,000 residents, and the Tenderloin with a rate of 271.4.

Are Treasure Island residents with coronavirus symptoms afraid to say so?

Perhaps this population error that has hidden the true and very high rate of coronavirus disease on Treasure Island is partly to blame for residents there feeling neglected during the pandemic. And because of the neglect and fear of eviction, the number of cases could be too low. People may be sick but afraid to say so.

In the past, island residents have been targeted for eviction after supplying TIDA officials or media with information that tends to tarnish the island’s public image . . .

Following a well-publicized pattern of neglect, neither San Francisco officials nor news media appear to seek out and contact individual islanders who themselves, their relatives or friends have contracted or died from either exposure to the island’s radiation, chemicals, asbestos, mold or lead or, most recently, COVID-19. 

As a result, The San Francisco Bay View newspaper finds no published evidence indicating that City and County of San Francisco (CCSF) Departments – including the COVID tracker, the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) or the Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA) – have provided this vital public health information. 

TIDA’s website offers only general coronavirus guidance, equally available to all San Franciscans

In the past, island residents have been targeted for eviction after supplying TIDA officials or media with information that tends to tarnish the island’s public image, especially for prospective purchasers of real estate after the island is redeveloped.

For this reason, and that they have nowhere else to go, residents with coronavirus symptoms or who are under quarantine, are unlikely to identify themselves. 

However, during years of off-the-record conversations, the San Francisco Bay View newspaper has established long-standing relationships with islanders. This has enabled us to accurately identify both current individual coronavirus cases and neighborhood clusters.

We withhold this information and the names to ensure the security of people who talk to us. We publish Otis Broughton’s case only because he has safely left the island.

What is the true population of Treasure Island?

Nobody bothers to collect accurate information about Treasure Island, including updating the actual number of people who still live there. As the Chronicle headline says, “We get forgotten so much.” 

For purposes of reporting the rate of COVID-19 infection on Treasure Island, the city’s tracker uses the figure 3,064. But the population has not been as high as 3,064 since 2010. 

Ten years ago, the SF Planning Department’s 2010 census total for Treasure Island, as provided by the Navy at a 2018 RAB Board meeting, was 3,090.

Wikipedia’s count was lower yet. “Yerba Buena and Treasure islands together have – in 2010 – a total population of 2,500.”

Subsequent reports secured by the San Francisco Bay View newspaper through attendance at island meetings and conversations with officials indicate that from 2010 to 2018, the island’s population was reduced by half. 

In a 2018 interview, Rachel Hiatt of TIMMA (Treasure Island Mobility Management Agency) stated that Treasure Island Development Authority director Robert Beck numbered Treasure Island’s total population at 1,800. That meant 1,290 people had left the island. 

Commensurate with this shrinking population, during the December 2018 on-island TIDA Board meeting attended by this reporter, Beck confirmed the number of households as small, at “around 725.” By 2020, the island population, diminished further, is estimated to be about 1,300.

It is important that the public understands that, since 2010, Lennar, TIDA and the John Stewart Company, after exposing residents to toxins, have driven half of the population from Treasure Island by relocation or eviction. Their agenda appears to be to make way for future condo owners by ridding themselves of tenants whose rents they no longer need.

Otis Broughton’s family could not avoid Treasure Island’s toxins

Otis moved to Treasure Island in September 2000. He stayed 10-11 years, leaving in 2010-2011.

Otis suspects that exposure to radiation and chemically-saturated dust blowing from all directions in the wind emanating out of the Navy’s nearby cleanup zones as well as radioactive soils and objects underfoot in the dirt triggered the major ailments that he and his family developed there – including his coronavirus. His two daughters (now adults 28 and 32) both have breast cancer. His son’s asthma worsened on the island.

Ozbourn Court – Photo: Google

“I used to stay on Ozbourn (1139E),” a court sandwiched between two former Navy trash dumps located along the shore facing San Francisco within Site 12, the community area. The Navy named these two Site 12 cleanup zones the Westside Solid Waste Disposal Area (west of Ozbourn Court) and the Bayside Solid Waste Disposal Area (to the east.) The wind continually blew toxic dust over his house out of these active remediation zones. 

In 2012, the family – Otis’ wife, 4-year-old son, his daughter, 8, and his stepdaughter in her 20s – relocated from Ozbourn Court further inland to a four-bedroom apartment at 1206D Mariner Drive to accommodate a daughter after she became pregnant and gave birth.

Changing addresses further inland away from the two shoreline cleanup zones did not protect the family. The Navy has located 1,289 radiological materials scattered over the entire island. As recently as 2019, the Navy dug a clump of radioactive dirt from under the front steps of 1203A Bayside Drive, the street next to Ozbourn Court. 

On Feb. 16, 2013, soon after the family moved, a 10-year-old girl died in a fire across the street at 1212 Mariner. (The house number is an error. The correct address is 1223 Mariner.) Neighbors reported feeling sick from breathing toxic fumes released in the smoke as the townhouse burned. “The fire was so hot it melted the building,” Otis said. 

Otis joined the devastated mother, father and neighbors gathered in their front yard across the street. He ran to the backyard and witnessed the terrified father hearing his daughter’s cries. When she and her belongings fell from an upstairs room through the floor, the dad tried to run inside the building to rescue his baby. But, Otis pulled him away from the flames. 

Mr. Broughton contracted two illnesses on Treasure Island. Respiratory illness set him up for coronavirus. Bone and muscle pain advanced to arthritis and deterioration of his spine. 

Inhaling toxic dust weakened Otis Broughton’s lungs, making him vulnerable to coronavirus

As reported in the San Francisco Bay View newspaper on April 4, 2020, both The New York Times and Marketwatch.com cited a study from the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggesting that inhaling dust-laden winds like the kind sweeping across Treasure Island could pre-condition residents’ lungs to the coronavirus. Dust bearing a load of radiation and chemicals is even more dangerous. 

Before he moved to Treasure Island, Otis experienced no breathing problems. He played basketball, swam and biked. 

After moving to the island, Otis noticed his breathing became labored. He was diagnosed with asthma. 

Otis’ respiratory problems progressed to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a group of diseases that obstruct airflow from the lungs – including, in his case, emphysema that results in difficulty breathing, cough, mucus production and wheezing. In emphysema, tiny sacs at the ends of the airways in the lungs break down forming larger sacs. These sacs capture air, making it hard to exhale. 

Otis does smoke. Cigarettes are a leading cause of COPD. However, 25 percent of COPD-sufferers never smoked, and COPD is also caused by long-term exposure to lung irritants like chemical fumes or dust.

Radium-226 may have replaced calcium in Otis Broughton’s bones

Arthritic bone and muscle pain cost Otis his health and livelihood. He earned $2,000 a month providing in-home care for people with disabilities. One of his patients was his sister. He helped her for about a year before pain interfered with his ability to lift her. She finally died of cancer. He was forced to stop working entirely.

The Navy reports that most of the 1,289 radiological objects it has pried to date from Treasure Island soil are contaminated with radium-226, a form of ionizing (decaying) radiation. Radium-226 is an unstable isotope of radium whose rate of decay (half-life) lasts 1,600 years, or over a millennium. 

Pathways into the human body are through touching, eating or inhalation. Particles of ionizing radiation carried on the wind can be readily inhaled. Radium-226 decaying through soil will render the surrounding area radioactive beyond the boundaries of any individual clump of dirt. This explains Treasure Island’s digging prohibition.

Exposure to radium-226 is implicated in Otis’ bone and muscle deterioration. During the decay cascade of radium-226, as it bombards atoms in human cells, tissues absorb the radiation which replaces calcium in bones. After taking up residence in the body, the radiation breaks down surrounding cells and causes cancer and other illnesses.

Payoff

Otis wants the public to know that he was put in a situation on Treasure Island with other people (many, but not all, African-American) in which they were not warned that the place was toxic. 

During a Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, press conference in Hunters Point (see video), Otis recalled something strange. Suddenly, “they” were willing to pay a lot of money to get poor, subsidized people off the island. Then they started putting up fences. Something was going on.

Up through 2012, the Navy had claimed the island was safe. Then, reporters found cesium-137 on Treasure Island.

“Before the whistle got blew on this radiation,” said Otis, “in about 2008-2009, they sent a notice to everybody explaining they would redevelop the island.

“This is what they proposed for Treasure Island. We’re going to rebuild Treasure Island. We’re going to give you $10,000, you $10,000, your kids $5,000, and we’re going to move you off.” 

“So, they had already knew about it – what was going on, right? Until people started getting sick. 

“And somebody over here at City Hall dropped the ball. Because – here it is: Why you going to offer me – what was it? $10,000?”

Former Treasure Island resident and activist Andre Patterson verified it was an “in lieu payment of $10,000.”

“Potato chip money,” somebody quipped.

Otis continued, “In other words, my whole entire family – you’re talking about three kids, me, and my wife – we were going to be offered – we was going to get $50,000 to move. 

“But, don’t say nothing.” 

“When was this?,” someone asked. 

“Way before … 2011. This was when they first started talking about redeveloping (Treasure Island).

“They were supposed to make two places like Geneva Towers. Remember that?”

“San Francisco was going to buy Treasure Island from the government,” someone recalled.

“And they were going to turn it into a resort,” said Otis.

“Here it is: I’m on low income, and you going to offer me $50,000 to move? Why wouldn’t you just move me? 

“OK, somehow the ball dropped, because – what was that street? – Gateview and Bayside. All of a sudden, this one area just keeps sinking.

“And, here they come with those (hazmat) suits. 

“The man with the safe thing. ‘Cause you gotta put it in a safe with cement around it to secure it. Dude taught me that.

“All of a sudden, we started seeing these people. Then the ball got dropped, and next thing you know, they got to talking about radiation. 

“We wasn’t allowed to cut our grass. The kids can’t play in it. But you got me living in it.” 

Discovery of radiation forces Navy to redo island cleanup

During 2012 and 2013, islanders experienced hazmat-suited workers suddenly materializing – both unannounced and with prior notice – in their yards with radiation-scanning equipment. 

A “towed array,” a tractor-towed computerized radiation detection device – Photo: US Navy

In October-November 2013, technicians from Gilbane, a Navy subcontractor, used “towed arrays,” tractor-towed radiation detection devices to find radioactive “hot spots” outside Treasure Islanders’ homes. Technicians rode over lawns and down streets entering data into a computer.

Then, in 2014, after residents made demands, “the Navy … decided to conduct radiological surveys of all the units under lease within Site 12 at the former Naval Station Treasure Island.” That’s when Otis discovered his unknowing exposure to radiation and chemicals. 

Seven islanders suffer radiation exposure at one address

Otis realized that a second source of his two major illnesses – breathing problems and bone-spine pain – was most likely radioactive material he saw Navy workers pry from the ground and put in a lockbox just outside the front door of his Mariner Street address. 

He became aware that he and his family had been walking over radiation under his front yard. This material could have caused the breast cancer that developed in both his daughters. 

1206D Mariner Drive – Photo: Carol Harvey

During the Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, Hunters Point press conference, Otis Broughton revealed that in 2013, he was living with his family at 1206D Mariner Drive when four or five men in hazmat suits appeared. He gave an eyewitness account of men in hazmat suits removing radiological material from his yard. Two other witnesses were present – Otis’ wife and a friend. A year before, in 2012, a hearsay “witness” and her children were exposed at the same address. In 2014, a Navy report documented the extraction. 

Witness No. 1 (by hearsay): former resident Margaret Billsborough 

On Friday, July 18, 2014, Margaret Billsborough took me around the island on a toxic tour of her four Treasure Island residences. She wanted to expose the fact that, though Treasure Island families are moved from place to place, they can never avoid exposure to radioactive objects and soils lurking behind fenced-off toxic zones and buried under their lawns or streets. 

1206D Mariner Drive – Photo: Google 

She believed her children suffered ill effects from living with radiological objects and soils at 1220E Bayside Drive, 1244G Northpoint Drive, 1206D Mariner Street and 1409C Flounder Court. Three of these four addresses abutted a radiation cleanup zone. The Navy found radiological material on every street except for Flounder Court. 

Standing on the sidewalk in front 1206D Mariner Drive, her third home, where she had lived from 2009 to 2012, Margaret reported she learned in 2013 that for three years her family had been exposed to radiation buried under flowers she planted in her neat, well-tended former front yard. 

Margaret Billsborough visits her third radioactive home, 1206D Mariner Drive on Treasure Island, on Sept. 13, 2014.

“After I moved out (of 1206D Mariner Drive),” said Margaret, “when they (the Navy) were doing the surveys in the backyards, they found a piece of radiation, and took it, put it in a bag, and put it in a safe. This is on video, and … we are actually here trying to get hold of the person that is now occupying the unit to just confirm and look at the video and record that.” 

“Some of your family members have various ailments that are triggered by radioactive exposure,” I asked.

“Mainly my youngest daughter,” she said. “She has abnormal advanced growth. When she was 7, she started fully developing as a grown adult female. She’s only 13 now, and this is years later. So, it happened to her very young. We were constantly going back and forth to the hospital in the ambulance behind breathing, her having chest pains, (and) her heart palpitations that were very strong and fast.

Margaret Billsborough stands in front of her third Treasure Island home out of four, this one at 1206D Mariner Drive. – Photo: Carol Harvey

“I talked with the teachers. Yeah, she has some learning disabilities, behavioral problems.”

Her youngest son, then 21, also had developed special needs after living on the island. 

This Navy map shows photographic closeups of radiological objects extracted from residences including 1206D Mariner Drive.

She and her daughters had suffered their first radiation exposure when they were awakened one morning at their earlier residence, 1244G Northpoint Drive, by noises under their bedroom window. Margaret looked out to see workers in white hazmat suits digging something out of the field behind her townhouse. Later, environmental coordinator Keith Foreman told Margaret in an off-the-record comment that this was the first radiological object the Navy found on the island. Navy records prove this statement inaccurate.

Eye-witnesses Nos. 2, 3, and 4: Otis Broughton, his wife and a neighbor 

At the 2018 Press Conference, Otis stated he saw men in hazmat suits in his front yard. “He had the whole monkey suit on. I thought he was coming from the moon.”

Shock prompted him to exclaim, “You need to call somebody to witness what I’m seeing.”

Otis’ wife was walking in and out of the house. She assumed the workers were taking samples.

His friend, who had arrived to pick up Otis to go fishing, verified this event.

One of the men walked back and forth pushing a machine set up high on four wheels with a video attachment on top. They scanned every inch of dirt in the front yard until they located “radioactive waste material” underneath. 

Otis saw the man pull from the ground “one of them screws, you know, like you put in a gun … that long, and it was rusty. The same kind you punch bridges with. Them type of screws.” Otis recalled it looked like a long screw or a bolt “over 3 inches.”

This is the closeup of the radiological object extracted from 1206D Mariner Drive.

The man “didn’t dig down even a foot.” 

With gloved hands, the man used tongs to pry the object from the ground.

“He took that screw, put it in a ziplock bag this big (demonstrated with his hands).” He, “zipped it, wrapped it up, walked it over” to a metal box that looked like a safe. (He) “opened up the safe – a big safe – and put it in there.” 

‘What’s that for?’ he asked the man. 

Otis hadn’t known it was under his yard until the man ran the machine over the ground and found it. 

“It didn’t set well with me that it was in the ground, and I walked over it every day – grandchildren, son and daughters, too.

“Then, the hazmat suit said, ‘Don’t touch the machine, man.’

“You need to let me know what’s in the bag,” Otis demanded. “You’re going to have to tell me something because that’s my son and daughters. 

“The man answered, ‘To secure it. It’s highly contaminated.’” 

“I’m not supposed to tell you this,” he added.

Otis emphasized that the man used the words “highly contaminated” and “radioactive waste material.” 

‘Witness’ No. 5: Navy documentation

The pictured Navy document displays the photograph of the radioactive object these workers located and removed from the 1206D address that day. The document describes a “metal object. Surface exposure (ground): 0.035 millirem/hr.” 

‘I beg you to keep yourself safe’

On Saturday, Aug. 15, an island neighbor contacted me. “They are moving Otis from the hospital to a hotel room where he will be quarantined for 15 more days.” 

Otis Broughton – Photo: Carol Harvey

Friday, Aug. 21, Otis messaged me saying he could continue the interview. I phoned him at home. He was medically cleared but would remain under quarantine for three more days, until Monday, Aug. 24. He had no energy, but was “basically OK,” “staying away from everybody and resting.” Otis’ recovery had taken two weeks, from Aug. 10 to the 24th. 

“I’ve ended up against a lot of things,” he wrote on Facebook. “Hell, I’ve been a fighter all my life. Ain’t no sense in stopping now.”

He begged everyone: “Keep yourself safe. I kept a mask on, and I still ended up with it.”

The San Francisco Bay View newspaper sends heartfelt wishes and prayers for Otis Broughton’s continued full recovery.

Carol Harvey is a San Francisco political journalist specializing in human rights and civil rights. She can be reached at carolharvey1111@gmail.com