by Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, MD
“In San Francisco’s Hunters Point, 25,000 people live near a decommissioned naval base, including a 46-acre toxic waste dump and the remainders of the Navy’s radiological defense laboratory. According to some, it is one of the most polluted sites in the world, possibly for a long time to come. Is the Navy fulfilling its responsibility to the residents … or simply laying waste and walking off?” – Saul Bloom, “Shame About the Shipyard: The History of Environmental Contamination and Management of the Hunters Point Shipyard,” Verdict, National Coalition of Concerned Legal Professionals, Vol. 8, No. 1, January 2002
Brain cancers are rare. The chance that you will be diagnosed with brain cancer in your lifetime is 0.6 percent based on 2017 data. The number of brain cancers diagnosed each year in the US is only six cases per 100,000. In stark contrast, there are 125 cases of breast cancer and 120 cases of prostate cancer diagnosed annually for every 100,000 people.
The statistical odds are immeasurably low that in a community of 35,000 people multiple cases of brain cancer could be detected, yet Bayview Hunters Point residents often comment in community meetings and public hearings about friends, neighbors, relatives, pets and children who have been diagnosed with brain cancer!
Even more astounding is the fact the Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program has identified multiple shipyard neighbors diagnosed with multiple brain tumors who have undergone urinary screenings that detect a toxic body burden of radioactive biomarkers and cancer-causing heavy metals.
HP Biomonitoring has evidenced that a rare cancer of the glial cells of the human brain called a brainstem glioma – proven to be induced by prolonged exposure to ionizing radiation and heavy metals – has been detected in Hunters Point residents and workers.
The environmental science, environmental justice and public health consequences of detecting a cluster of rare brain cancers in a neighborhood located within a one-mile radius of three EPA designated federal Superfund sites are enormous!
Disparities in cancer incidences in Bayview Hunters Point residents were first documented in 1995 when a cluster of breast cancers was discovered by Health Department researchers. Between 1988 and 1992, 60 African American women were diagnosed with breast cancer – 41 percent were under the age of 50.
A 2000-2001 graph documents all cancers to be the third highest cause of excess deaths in BVHP and the second highest cause of years of life lost per death. The San Francisco Department of Public Health stopped publishing cancer data by zip code by 2009.
A 2019 review of breast cancer disparities analyzed in “Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention” found that while African American women comprised only 7.2 percent of breast cancer diagnoses in San Francisco from 2006 to 2015, in Bayview Hunters Point Black women represent 25.5 percent of breast cancer diagnoses and had the worst five-year survival rate.
A 2010 Superior Court Civil Grand Jury report documented email collusion between Health Department officials, EPA regulators and environmental consultants for the shipyard’s master developer, Lennar.
The findings starkly contradict the conclusions of Tomás Aragón, MD, DrPh – San Francisco’s former health officer – in a March 6, 2019, letter to Mayor London Breed. Aragón analyzed the same data as the independent scientists and concluded “no excess cancers of any type was seen in women” in BVHP.
The San Francisco Department of Public Health released morbidity and mortality rates on the incidence of cancer, infectious diseases and injuries by zip code when I was a UCSF medical student during the 1980s AIDS era.
By 2009, DPH no longer published cancer incidences by zip code. Many believe it was due to unfolding events at the Hunters Point Shipyard, where a 2010 Superior Court Civil Grand Jury report documented email collusion between Health Department officials, EPA regulators and environmental consultants for the shipyard’s master developer, Lennar.
Additionally, in 2009, the Navy disbanded the shipyard’s boisterous Restoration Advisory Board while DPH expanded Article 31 of the Health Code – allowing the health director to bill Lennar for oversight of “earthmoving” activities on the federal Superfund site, including the entire 500-acre base. Article 31 turned the Environmental Division of the Department of Public Health into a revenue-generating enterprise department for the City and County of San Francisco.
The decision by San Francisco’s population health officer to omit these cancers from the Bayview Hunters Point cancer review would likely have been deliberate.
The Navy’s decision to disband the RAB was opposed by the EPA. The Navy took action because RAB members failed to review cleanup documents, called for a Parcel A moratorium and unanimously supported a Civil Grand Jury investigation that confirmed the conflict of interest between the Health Department and Lennar.
Additionally, the Navy references twice the January 2009 unanimous vote to unseat Amy Brownell, PE, as DPH’s environmental regulator after emails obtained via FOIA documented Brownell’s collusion to shut down a community air monitor – HV12 – that registered astronomical exceedances in asbestos on a daily basis, along with a dialogue between Mark Ripperda of the EPA and a Lennar environmental consultant on “minimizing shut down days” and the health impacts of toxic dust exposures generated by the grading of the Parcel A hilltop.
In a letter dated March 2019 to San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Tomás Aragón, MD, DrPH, examined cancer incidence for 12 types of cancers linked to radiation exposure and found a 31 percent increase in lung cancer in men living in 94124 for the years 2008-2012.
The list of 12 cancers Aragón analyzed excluded a major group of cancers widely accepted to be caused by radiation exposure: cancers of head, neck and brain!
Cancers of the head, neck, brain, breast and respiratory system are also cancers linked to airborne exposure to toxic pollutants, according to World Trade Center Health Program entry guidelines. Thus, the decision by San Francisco’s population health officer to omit these cancers from the Bayview Hunters Point cancer review would likely have been deliberate.
I believe the exclusion of brain cancers from the DPH 2019 analysis of cancers in Bayview Hunters Point was deliberate. By 2018, a front-page Chronicle investigation of San Francisco police officers stationed at Building 606 on the Hunters Point Shipyard had identified two officers who underwent neurosurgery and/or died from brain cancer.
By 2019, SFDPH was in the legal crosshair of a high-powered law group representing 400 officers. The detection of excess brain cancers linked to radiation exposure at the Hunters Point Shipyard opened the Health Department to public embarrassment, disrepute and a “deep pocket” legal recovery for criminal negligence in a wrongful death class action suit.
Wrongful death class action suit
She was as tall, smart and strong as any boy her age while growing up in the South Basin region of the Hunters Point Shipyard. After college, she began work as a physical therapist and started to “roll her ankle” over and over again. On medical evaluation, problems with how she walked and how well she could balance herself were noted and an MRI scan was ordered. It showed a rare tumor at the base of her brain called a brainstem glioma.
The 2020 urinary screening was remarkable for a young, fit and otherwise healthy woman. She had accumulated an enormous body burden of toxic chemicals that included “Group 1” cancer-causing heavy metals.
Everything started to move real fast in her life after that brain scan! Over the next weeks she received 30 rounds of radiation treatments that caused her brain to swell. Her weakness and imbalance worsened after radiation but over time she regained her strength and moved on with her life.
But she wondered why, out of all the people around her, she was afflicted with brain cancer! She was fit and healthy and ate a healthy diet – that is, until stress at work, nibbling, long hours and sleepless nights caused her to gain weight. She remembers growing up near Yosemite Slough, a muddy channel of water that runs west towards Third Street into the residential neighborhood where she spent her tomboy girlhood.
In 2016 the EPA sued the Navy, the City and County of San Francisco and over a dozen private polluting industries to secure funds for the clean-up and restoration of Yosemite Slough, and in so doing, designated it a federal Superfund site – the third in a one square mile region.
Yosemite Slough was once a spacious marine-based ecosystem, home to wildlife and multiple species of plants and animals. After years of toxic industrial waste, trash and debris generated by the runoff of the shipyard’s chemical and radiation-contaminated shoreline and industrial landfill, lead, arsenic, PCBs and petroleum products were detected in a “stew” of contaminated mud.
She underwent biomonitoring evaluation and urinary screening in 2020, driven by lingering questions about the cause of her brainstem glioma and smoldering concerns she was being exposed to toxic chemicals. The urinary screening was remarkable for a young, fit and otherwise healthy woman. She had accumulated an enormous body burden of toxic chemicals that included “Group 1” cancer-causing heavy metals.
Nickel was detected in high concentrations along with cadmium – one of the most dangerous heavy metals. Toxic levels of aluminum, copper, iron, molybdenum, manganese, vanadium and chromium were also detected.
Almost all heavy metals cause cancer when present in toxic concentrations, but arsenic, cadmium, chromium and nickel are classified as Group 1 carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Heavy metals used in industrial areas increase the opportunity for heavy exposure due to environmental contamination and accumulation in the human body. Heavy metals are found in batteries, paint and pigments used in children’s toys, jewelry and in vehicle emissions.
In 2002, 130 scientists from 16 countries met at the Conference on Metal Toxicity and Carcinogenesis to present research on metal-induced cancers. Heavy metals had been proven to alter genes in human and animal studies.
Researchers analyzed data to better understand how heavy metals cause toxicity and cancer. They found heavy metals induce “oxidative stress, DNA damage and cell death processes resulting in an increased risk of cancer and cancer-related diseases.”
Gliomas arise as a result of genetic changes in glial cells. Several research studies document an increase in glioma incidence in people with prolonged exposure to heavy metals – specifically, lead, nickel, chromium and cadmium. Brainstem gliomas are also linked to ionizing radiation exposure.
Brainstem gliomas are even rarer in adults and comprise only 1-2 percent of all intracranial gliomas. While research shows the incidence of brain cancer is higher among whites, African Americans diagnosed with brain cancer face a 13 percent increased risk of death due to surgical outcomes.
I followed Saul Bloom down the enormous “rabbit hole” that remains of him in the historical archives of the Hunters Point Shipyard and discovered the connection between heavy metal exposure and gliomas. Bloom was 62 years old when he died of a malignant glioma in 2016. He was loved and hated, recognized and respected as founding director of Arc Ecology in San Francisco, where he agitated for environmental, ecological, economic and social justice.
Bloom will be remembered as the principal author of Proposition P – a voter-led initiative on the Nov. 7, 2000, municipal ballot on which 287,000 San Francisco voters said yes to the nation’s first community acceptance action codifying cleanup at a federal Superfund site. Proposition P called for cleanup of the Hunters Point Shipyard to residential standards – the highest standard called for under the federal Superfund Act.
Bloom is singularly credited for shepherding the EPA designation of Yosemite Slough as a federal Superfund site. Arc Ecology was slated to lead the remediation and restoration of the slough in 2016 when Bloom died, “in the loving arms of friends and family,” of a malignant glioma – no doubt induced by decades of exposure to radiation and heavy metals he publicly documents having been in contact with beginning in 1995 working alongside Astoria Metals at Hunters Point Shipyard Dry Dock 4.
Saul Bloom offers medical documentation and legal proof of his exposure to radiation and heavy metals at the Hunters Point Shipyard in the legal journal Verdict, Vol. 8, April 2002. In 1995, the Navy agreed to lease Dry Dock 4 to the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency and Arc Ecology for a project designed to bring ship recycling opportunities to laid off shipyard workers.
Arc Ecology conducted an environmental compliance verification that revealed “the dry dock was a source of both metal and chemical contamination and the failure of the Navy to provide San Francisco with a correct report on the status and leasability showed the project was off to a bad start and that there was much to be worried about.” Saul Bloom was right: There was much to be worried about!
The Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program has conducted urinary toxicology screenings on residents who have been diagnosed with multiple tumors and cancers arising in the brain, including a minister with a tumor of the pituitary gland diagnosed with an inoperable brainstem glioma.
The minister has never met a neighbor who lives two blocks away. She has been a Hunters Point homeowner for 20 years, and in 2020, she spoke courageously to the mainstream media after HP Biomonitoring conducted a urinary screening that revealed an enormous body burden of radioactive biomarkers and heavy metals in astounding concentrations that included cesium, gadolinium, nickel, rubidium, thallium, strontium, manganese and vanadium. Additionally, chromium, copper, zinc and magnesium were detected in elevated levels.
She walks her dog along the boundary of the shipyard’s radiation-contaminated shoreline less than 500 feet from her house and served as an elected member of the Hunters Point Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board until the Navy disbanded it in 2009. She worked overnight shifts for the San Francisco Chronicle until disabled by chronic pain and multiple cancer and tumor diagnoses.
She underwent surgery for breast cancer followed by neurosurgery – twice – to excise tumors compressing her brain. An ENT (ear, nose and throat) doctor examined her and obtained an MRI scan that showed tumors growing out of the auditory nerve in both ears.
Living in a South Basin home about six blocks from her is a neighbor she has never met. She is a physically commanding, professional woman with a doctorate in education who serves as a high-ranking administrator for the San Francisco Unified School district. She has owned two homes in Hunters Point.
In 1983, she was living in a modern development on the Hunters Point hilltop when she began experiencing symptoms of chronic asthma and underwent excision of a pulmonary nodule in her lung. That same year, she was diagnosed with a pituitary tumor in her brain and underwent neurosurgery performed by Charles Wilson, MD, founding chair of the internationally acclaimed UCSF Department of Neurological Surgery. I was her admitting intern in 1983.
High levels of thallium – a radioactive element so dangerous it was banned as a rat killer – are also detected.
Two years ago, she developed problems with balance, and an ENT doctor examined her and obtained an MRI scan that showed tumors growing out of the nerves of both ears – just like her Hunters Point neighbor who lives next door to the minister who was diagnosed with a pituitary tumor!
HP Biomonitoring conducted a urinary screening that detected arsenic in toxic concentrations. Arsenic has been classified as a Class 1 carcinogen by the International Agency of Research on Cancer and is associated with multiple tumors.
Gadolinium, cooper, manganese and rubidium are also detected in potentially toxic concentrations. High levels of thallium – a radioactive element so dangerous it was banned as a rat killer – are also detected.
Pathways of exposure at the Hunters Point Shipyard
To understand how toxins documented to be present at a federal Superfund system accumulate over time in the human body, let’s take a look at several important graphs.
The EPA conceptual model depicts various pathways of exposure of known toxins to sensitive receptors in the environment, including families with small children and the ecosystem. The findings of a consistent profile of shipyard soil elements in multiple urinary screenings conducted on residents and workers within its one-mile perimeter can be best explained by airborne transmission.
Indeed, HP Biomonitoring screened a Hunters Point hilltop resident during an asthma attack triggered by dust she sees in her environment, detecting numerous soil elements in her urine corresponding to Parcel A soils.
Many of the soil elements detected in urinary screenings conducted by the Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program are derived from the serpentinite bedrock of the Hunters Point hilltop that has been graded for years, creating a community-wide exposure independent of age, gender, race and ethnicity in shipyard workers and neighbors. All are documented by the Navy and the EPA to be chemicals or radionuclides of concern at the federal Superfund site.
The original pre-clean EPA Hazard Ranking Score for the Treasure Island Naval Station – Hunters Point Annex predicted an 80 percent likelihood that sensitive receptors nearby would be exposed to hazards at the federal Superfund site, and a 100 percent probability that sensitive receptors would be exposed by groundwater migration.
Thus, the EPA predicted with 100 percent certainty that in January 2019, when the Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program launched, we would detect toxins from one EPA designated federal Superfund site. In 2021, we have spawned to a system of three Superfund sites.
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 email@example.com. 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.