Navigating the toxic triangle in Bayview Hunters Point

This photo taken in 2010 shows the north side of Hunters Point Hill located in the heavily industrialized southeast sector of San Francisco adjacent to a system of federal superfund sites at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. There are no grocery stores on the Hunters Point hilltop for the thousands of people who live there. – Photo: Monica Jensen, Public PressWelcome to the Neigbhorhood is a collective project of the SF Public Press multimedia team. The first theme is “Open Space.”

by Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, MD

The USDA defines a food desert as a region without access to nutritious, affordable and quality whole foods. Food deserts are areas with a 20 percent or greater poverty rate and where a third of residents live more than a mile from a supermarket, farmers market or local grocery store. In the “grocery gap,” researchers from Food Trust found African Americans are 400 percent more likely to live in a community that lacks a full-service supermarket.

Ron Finley is a food justice advocate in South Los Angeles. In his community, “It’s easier to get alcohol than an organic apple.

“A food desert is a place where there is absolutely no chance, opportunity or hope to get any kind of healthy, nutritious food. The food that is distributed in a food desert is sub-par and often comes from different parts of the world. It is sprayed with toxins and poisons and picked before its time. On top of that, there is a proliferation of fast food, which a lot of time is the only option residents of these communities have … the drive-throughs are killing more people than the drive-bys.”

When Ahimsa Sumchai was 12, she won the Citywide Gymnastics Competition in 1964. She lived then at 1726 Sunnydale in public housing and attended Luther Burbank Junior High School.

Joel Fuhrman, MD, coined the term, “fast food genocide” because most people “don’t understand the depth and breadth of the harm as a large segment of our society eats a diet worse than the sad and dangerous Standard American Diet (SAD).” 

Fuhrman cites research showing that compared with neighborhoods with access to full-service supermarkets, the “years of potential life lost,” or YPLL, for an overweight diabetic living in a zone classified as a food desert is a shocking 45 years!

The Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program launched in January 2019 as the nation’s first human biomonitoring program established to offer voluntary urinary toxicology screenings to residents and workers at a federal superfund site. HP Biomonitoring is detecting toxic body burdens of heavy metals and radioactive elements along with deficiencies in essential immune and nutrient elements.

Having grown up in southeast San Francisco, I harbor childhood memories of shopping at the cannery with my mother and spending my lunch money on sugar cookies and hard candy at a liquor store near my school. My mind keeps deeply engraved memories of running out of food stamps before the end of the month and discovering a gallon of spoiled milk in a dark warm refrigerator after PG&E shut off the electricity for non-payment.

This worker employed by Lennar in 2008 at the Hunters Point Shipyard federal Superfund site is exposed to piles of contaminated soil with no mask or protective gear. The Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program is detecting a high body burden of toxic heavy metals and radioactive elements in male laborers and alarming deficiencies in essential nutrient elements needed to optimize strength and neuromuscular function. These deficiencies often include copper, iron, selenium, zinc, calcium, magnesium, potassium and sulfur. – Photo: Lennar

I was born a low birth weight infant at 5 pounds and was often the smallest – and smartest – child in my elementary school classroom. My low body weight and boundless energy fueled my training as a gymnast and dancer, with the expense of extremely low body fat.

Genova Diagnostics Toxic Exposure Test and Comprehensive Urine Element Profile screening detects deficiencies in copper, iron, selenium, calcium, magnesium and low normal levels of sulfur, potassium and strontium.

As a certified clinical nutritionist and physician, I now recognize the relationship between poverty, hunger and obesity linked to fast foods, canned foods and nutritionally deficient calorie rich foods loaded with sugar, salt, corn syrup and artificial colors and flavors. Food deserts are areas where liquor stores, dollar stores and fast food restaurants are major sources of empty calories from sodas, pastries, cookies, chips and wine coolers – nutritionally inadequate foods linked with poverty and excess death from diseases like diabetes, cancer, heart disease and low birth weight infants.

Income and population demographics in Bayview Hunters Point vary widely. Residents of the Hunters Point hilltop in Hunters View public housing have a median income as low as $22,000 and a childhood population as high as 39 percent.

The Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program was funded by the Packard Foundation in October 2019 and licensed by the Medical Board of California as a medical screening clinic in January of 2020. HP Biomonitoring detects toxic body burden and deficiencies in essential immune and nutrient elements in screenings conducted on low income residents and workers at a federal Superfund site. 

Geospatial mapping of HP Biomonitoring’s “South Basin Cluster” shows an aggregate of four elements being detected in toxic concentrations in residents living adjacent to the shipyard’s South Basin region. The elements include arsenic, red pin; gadolinium, blue pin; manganese, yellow pin; vanadium, white pin.

Using the Genova Diagnostics Comprehensive Urine Elements Profile screening to detect toxins and nutritional deficiencies in 35 elements, HP Biomonitoring has identified a “toxic triangle” of deficiencies that include micronutrients essential for optimal function of the immune system and thyroid gland that include zinc, selenium and copper. 

Research has proven copper deficiency is linked to increased susceptibility to infection. An improved immune response has been documented when the deficient host is provided with a copper supplement. Copper stimulates the immune system to fight infections, repair injured tissue, promote healing and neutralize free radicals that cause severe damage to cells.

A system of 10 particulate sensing air monitors capable of detecting particle pollution as small as 2.5 microns is being sited at key locations throughout Bayview Hunters Point.

Correcting deficiencies in essential immune and nutrient elements is the fundamental first step in mitigating the “perfect storm” of adverse impacts caused by community-wide toxic exposures, climate change and the global pandemic.

Additionally, HP Biomonitoring is detecting deficiencies in micronutrients essential for the physical integrity and neuromuscular function of the human body including iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium and sulfur.

Dr. Ahimsa Sumchai stands beside a cable car at Powell and California in 2011.

Manganese is being universally detected in high normal to toxic concentrations in all screenings performed to date on residents and workers within a one-mile radius of the federal superfund system at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Manganese fed to cocks in toxic concentrations led to microscopically detected damage to immune organs. Effects of manganese toxicity on immune-related organs of cocks can be found here

KPIX presented its Jefferson Award for community service to Dr. Sumchai’s HP Biomonitoring program this year.

The Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program is dedicated to the intersecting priorities of:

  • Advancing environmental public health through community exposure screenings toward the ultimate goal of establishing a community-wide toxic registry.
  • Identifying social and environmental determinants of health that adversely impact the optimum function of the human immune system in a neighborhood with the second highest case rate for COVID-19 infections.
  • Advancing HP Biomonitoring’s award winning pioneering geospatial mapping and epidemiological surveys to determine prevalence of community-wide toxic exposures to “detect … protect … prevent!”
  • Cross-referencing human biomonitoring geospatial mapping with real time particulate air monitoring data generated by the Marie Harrison Bayview Air Monitoring network of PM10 2.5 micron community air monitors sited at strategic locations throughout the 94124 zip code.
  • Raising the bar on the delivery of high quality, high standard care along with personalized medicine and offering the nascent science of human biomonitoring in population screenings for the state of California’s most high-risk community.
  • Simple, reliable, low cost and accessible urinary screenings to detect deficiencies in essential immune, micronutrient and toxic elements performed by a certified laboratory using mass spectrometry.

SF Bay View Health and Environmental Science Editor Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, MD, PD, founder and principal investigator for the Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program, founding chair of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board’s Radiological Subcommittee and contributor to the 2005 Draft Historical Radiological Assessment, can be reached at AhimsaPorterSumchaiMD@Comcast.net. Dr. Sumchai is medical director of Golden State MD Health & Wellness, a UCSF and Stanford trained author and researcher, and a member of the UCSF Medical Alumni Association Board of Directors.

Siting the Marie Harrison Bayview Air Monitor at St. John Missionary Baptist Church on Oct. 17, 2020: Members of the MHBAM steering committee led by Dalila Adofo discuss optimum location of a Dylos particulate sensing air monitor in memory of Marie Harrison, Mother of the Environmental Health & Justice Movement in Bayview Hunters Point. Tiffany Williams is the air monitor tech and Sabrina Hall looks on as the church Deacon discusses the placement. Marie Harrison died following a cardiopulmonary arrest in May of 2019. She suffered “to the very last breath” from chronic oxygen shortage caused by pulmonary scarring and fibrosis. She was memorialized at St. John Church on May 18, 2019. Placement of the MHBAM air monitor is a living testament to her life’s work on behalf of a neighborhood where over 20 tons of dangerous particle pollution is generated each year.