On the unspeakable history of animal cruelty at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard

Dr. Sumchai’s own beautiful pets Romeo and Mia visit her HP Biomonitoring Medical Screening Clinic circa 2019. Shipyard toxicity is causing widespread cancers in Bayview Hunters Point people and pets. – Photo: Dr. Ahimsa Sumchai

by Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, MD

If spirits haunt the shoreline of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, they most certainly include the spirits of animals! The history of the federal Superfund site is replete with the mass killing of animals. 

This is not a happy story – it saddens me to tell it. This is a story about the human impact of the loss of animal companions on shipyard shoreline workers and neighbors. It begins in the City of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals.

St. Francis of Assisi is remembered for many things, one of which was his love for nature and the environment. A collection of legends about his life includes one in which St. Francis made peace between the terrified residents of a town and a ferocious wolf that devoured their livestock. St. Francis blessed the wolf and, to the great amazement of the townspeople, the wolf ceased.

In 1868, southeastern San Francisco’s “Butchertown” flourished on a peninsula surrounded by water and fields of open land. Herds of cattle were driven by cowboys from slaughterhouses located along Islais Creek down Third Street and Evans Avenue through a network of stockyards that, by 1877, housed 18 slaughterhouses, tanneries, wool pulleries and fertilizer plants. Butchertown smelled “to high hell” and by 1878 slaughterhouses were banned by ordinance in every city neighborhood. They ultimately closed in 1971.

Third Street and Evans Avenue, in the heart of the modern-day Bayview Hunters Point community, was a brackish marshland home to San Francisco’s “Butchertown.” – Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library, AAB-6727

The world’s first nuclear disaster

Chemist Glenn T. Seaburg, longest serving chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, called Shot Baker “the world’s first nuclear disaster.” Over 42,000 military and civilian personnel participated in Operation Crossroads conducted in the Bikini Atoll in July of 1946. Critics had voiced concern about the “grandiose display of atomic power” during United Nations discussions over international atomic energy controls in May of 1946.

Shot Baker was one of two atomic weapons tests conducted jointly by the US Army and Navy in July of 1946 at Bikini Atoll. Shot Baker was the first underwater detonation of a 23 kiloton “Fat Man” plutonium bomb. On July 25, 1946, 96 target ships were assembled to test the effect of nuclear weapons on warships. The target ships contained live goats, sheep and pigs killed by the eruption of a million tons of radioactive water upward into a mile-high column and mushroom dome, creating waves of radioactive fallout that rolled over the target vessels. Eighty-five mangled and contaminated ships were towed to the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard for futile attempts at decontamination. – Photo: NARA, Still Pictures Unit, Record Group 347-G, box 7, folder 59, “Tests: Operation Crossroads”
The nuclear test Shot Baker captured in the Bikini Atoll of the South Pacific in 1946.

Plans to expose live animals to radioactivity generated protest letters from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. According to the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory (NRDL) Briefing Book, over 5,600 goats, pigs, guinea pigs and rodents were placed in compartments and strapped onto ship decks to evaluate the biological effects of the bomb.

Sacrificial lambs and goats on the altar of military prowess. These helpless animals were strapped onto the decks of a fleet of 96 target ships exposed to a 23-kiloton plutonium bomb during Operation Crossroads in 1946. The underwater blast contaminated test ships and turned them into “radioactive stoves.” – Photo: National Security Archive, Bikini A-Bomb Tests, July 1946

Shot Baker turned the assembled ships into “radioactive stoves that burned all living things aboard with invisible and painless but deadly radiation” wrote a Navy official in a classified cable sent to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. According to the National Security Archive, Shot Baker created a radiological disaster. Military personnel assigned to salvage the contaminated test ships were exposed to dangerous levels of ionizing radiation.

Mangled but still afloat, six target vessels were hauled back to the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. In the months following Operation Crossroads, an additional 18 target ships and 61 support ships were towed to Hunters Point for futile decontamination efforts.

According to investigative journalists Jason Fagone and Cynthia Dizikes: “After the A-bomb tests, Navy leaders realized a special facility was needed to wash the contaminated clothing of sailors at Hunters Point,” and a “radioactive laundry” was installed inside Building 503. 

In 1997, a year after SFPD leased Building 606, known to be contaminated and surrounded by known contaminated soil, a Department of Public Health hygienist warned of “serious problems.” K-9 officers who ran their dogs through the shipyard’s “killing fields” suspected toxic exposure was the cause when the dogs began getting sick.

Each wash cycle flushed over 100 gallons of radiation-contaminated water into pipes and drains. That building was demolished, its footprint covered with five feet of soil. Building 606 was constructed in 1986 on top of it. Building 606 is located at the border between radiation-contaminated Parcel D and Parcel E.

On Feb. 13, 1996, Mayor Willie Brown and Navy officials announced the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency would lease Building 606 to the Police Department for $18,000 a month. As early as 1993 the Navy had detected lead and benzene in the soil and lead, copper and petroleum products in the drinking water. 

Eight officers underwent examination by a UCSF physician for symptoms linked to toxic environmental exposures and in 1997 an industrial hygienist with the San Francisco Department of Public Health warned of “serious problems” at Building 606.

In 2018, a blockbuster exposé by Chris Roberts appeared in SF Curbed that identified widespread falsification of soil tests conducted by Navy contractor Tetra Tech. In Abbey et al. v. United States of America Department of the Navy, 400 SFPD officers, staff and spouses sued the US Navy for health effects they believe are due to toxic exposures from the site including asthma, blood disorders, lung cancer, brain cancer and two German shepherd deaths from cancer.

According to an officer with the canine unit: “Some of these guys … slept with their dogs. The dogs weren’t pets, but they lived with these guys. Some brought them in their houses.”

Radioactive “killing fields” – here on the far south side of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in 2007 – were generated by years of massive grading. Despite fierce criticism by the community, almost no effort was made to suppress the dust, which carried radioactive and chemical carcinogens into the lungs of all the people and animals – everything that breathes – in Bayview Hunters Point in a clear case of environmental racism. Reparations now! – Photo: Brant Ward, SF Chronicle

K-9 officers ran their dogs through the “killing fields” of the shipyard’s most dangerously contaminated regions. According to the Chronicle investigation, a K-9 officer stationed at Building 606 expressed concern over the shipyard’s history of nuclear testing as the K-9 dogs started getting sick. 

A sable-colored German shepherd named Crocker ran into a glass door at high speed. At surgery his spleen was found to be full of tumors.

“These buildings were ‘hot’ chemistry and biology labs, kennels for animals given lethal doses of radiation and storage vaults for radioactive elements used in experiments. The Navy stashed drums of radioactive waste in temporary shacks in the area.” – excerpted from “Working in a Wasteland” by Jason Fagone and Cynthia Dizikes for the San Francisco Chronicle July 26, 2018.

The Biological and Medical Sciences Division of NRDL, headquartered in Building 815 on the shipyard’s southern shoreline, conducted cruel animal experiments “to assess, evaluate and prevent radiation injury in humans.” Scientists measured the biological effects of exposure from different sources of radiation including gamma rays, neutron radiation and beta particles at varying doses, rates and exposure pathways causing skin burns, gastrointestinal bleeding and central nervous system damage.

The Hunters Point Shipyard Historical Radiological Assessment identifies all areas in red, yellow, light green and green, such as Buildings 831 and 830 here, to be radiological designated sites, areas or impacted buildings. Nevertheless, Building 830 is the site of UCSF animal kennels and 30 full time and part time university employees. The author contributed to finalization of the Aug. 3, 2004, final HRA as founding chair of the Hunters Point Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board Radiological Subcommittee.

Animal kennels used by NRDL are located on the shipyard’s southern shoreline in regions designated Parcel E-2. Buildings 830 and 831 were sold to UCSF following the closure of NRDL in 1970 for use as kennels. Building 830 at 75 Crisp Road houses up to 30 full time and part time UCSF employees. It is located within 200 feet of an industrial landfill where barrels of irradiated animal carcasses were disposed of along with an estimated 2,750 radium dials.

HP Shipyard Building 815 is the windowless six story headquarters for the NRDL where from 1946 to 1969 academic scientists recruited from UC Berkeley and Stanford engaged in research and practices that would be deemed highly unethical and immoral by present day standards

As attending physician for the Palo Alto Veterans Administration Toxic Registry in 1997, this author medically evaluated a former serviceman who carried barrels of irradiated animal carcasses for disposal into the Parcel E-2 landfill. Years later he developed a rare cancer of the abdominal wall that obstructed his lymphatic drainage system causing his torso to expand grotesquely as his tissues accumulated the blocked lymphatic fluid.

This document, distributed to the Hunters Point Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board in 2002, shows the proximity of the Parcel E-2 landfill and radiation contaminated shoreline to the UCSF compound. Building 830 workers report smelling methane and petroleum products and experts believe the landfill has migrated laterally and may now be under Building 830.

The Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program conducted urinary toxic exposure screenings on 15 current and former UCSF workers sited at 75 Crisp Road in Building 830. The urine screenings include an animal technician who worked for 12 years at Nobel Prize winner Dr. Stanley Prusiners’ Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases once sited in Building 830.

Human biomonitoring links radioactive and carcinogenic heavy metals to death of pets

I expected her urinary toxic screening to be serious – but not this serious! That was my immediate impression after receiving the lab result conducted on an extremely high risk 55-year-old woman who requested the toxicology test after viewing a YouTube video I created of the western fence line that separates the shipyard’s chemical and radiation-contaminated shoreline from “Three Street,” the heart of the Bayview Hunters Point community – less than a mile away.

“Dr. Ahimsa Sumchai and the Hunters Point Shipyard – up close and personal!” is a video on the western fence line between “Three Street” and the radioactive shoreline. – Video: Dr. Ahimsa Sumchai

She has lived within 250 feet of that unguarded chain metal fence for 25 years. During that time, she has suffered the loss of six animal companions – dogs and cats – from what she has witnessed to be primarily cancers of the head and neck. She recalls a cat with a bulging tumor of the right eye, a beautiful dog Apollo with visible tumors of the neck, animals with symptoms of nerve damage who “went out there [to the shipyard] to die” and a cat who bled to death from feline leukemia.

This urine toxic exposure screening was conducted on a senior animal technician who worked at Building 830 on the radiation contaminated Parcel E-2 shoreline within feet of an industrial landfill for 12 years. An aggregate of radioactive and carcinogenic heavy metals is detected in toxic range including cesium, gallium, platinum, rubidium, thallium, manganese, vanadium, zinc and potassium.

In all three urine screens we detected a deadly combination of chemicals capable of killing humans and small animals. The implications for a neighborhood hosting the city’s largest childhood population cannot be understated. There are schools, playgrounds and childcare centers within 500 feet of the shipyard shoreline.

Arsenic exposure alone can be deadly! Inorganic arsenic from agricultural and industrial sources is the most toxic form and is linked to multiple cancers. Arsenic is used as a rodent killer, herbicide and pesticide at the Hunters Point shipyard and has been detected in soil, groundwater and landfills in 70 percent to 100 percent of samples.

Thallium is a highly toxic cumulative poison to humans with effects most severe in the nervous system and was banned from wide use in rat poisons and insecticides. Thallium compounds are colorless, odorless and tasteless. 

Thallium has 41 isotopes. It is detected in soils on the contaminated southern shoreline at a frequency of over 40 percent. The Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program is detecting thallium in about 50 percent of screenings conducted on shipyard residents and workers.

A radiation-induced soft tissue sarcoma in dogs and cats often arises from the limbs. A PubMed cited research study on beagles intentionally exposed to varying doses of external beam radiation proves ionizing radiation can induce a soft tissue sarcoma in dogs within two to five years.

The radioactive metals cesium, uranium, strontium, rubidium and manganese together form a toxic “stew” made even more dangerous when “flavored” with cancer-causing heavy metals like nickel, platinum, chromium and cadmium. The Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program has mapped a cluster of cancers proven to be induced by exposure to radiation in shipyard neighbors. The black pins correspond to animals verified to have died of cancer.

Misty died in 2020 of a soft tissue sarcoma of the thigh. She was loved by her Human, who has lived for over 20 years on Oakdale Avenue – a “stone’s throw” from the Crisp Road entry to the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. They took walks together along the radiation-contaminated shoreline.
Urine toxic exposure screening from Misty’s Human – a Hunters Point homeowner and former elected member of the shipyard RAB who has undergone surgery for breast cancer and recurrent brain tumors. The urinary toxicology test reveals a dangerous aggregate of radioactive metals known to induce lethal cancers in both humans and animals including cesium, thallium and strontium.
The “naked,” unreinforced fence line at 1000 Revere Avenue and Fitch Street separates the chemical and radiation-contaminated shoreline and Parcel E-2 landfill from homes and the major intersection of Third and Palou less than a mile away.
A urine toxic exposure screening was requested by a Hunters Point resident who has lived within 250 feet of the intersection of 1000 Revere and Fitch at the unreinforced fence line separating the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard’s most dangerously contaminated soils and landfills from the Hunters Point neighborhood.
Urinary toxic exposure screening conducted on a 55-year-old woman who has lived for 25 years at the western fence line separating the contaminated naval base from densely populated Bayview Hunters Point. She has suffered through the deaths of six dogs and cats who died from signs and symptoms of cancer. Arsenic is detected in a concentration three times greater than toxic. Arsenic and thallium were used as industrial rodent killers and the combination of arsenic, thallium and radioactive metals in toxic concentrations explains multiple small animal deaths.
HP Biomonitoring cancer cluster at the Hunters Point Shipyard updated on Aug. 25, 2021. Colored pin heads correspond to cancers the Atomic Bomb Survivors Registry links to radiation exposure. The black pins are at locations where animal deaths due to cancer have been verified. Note the clustering around the shipyard’s historic main entry at Palou and Third and along the western boundary at the Parcel E-2 landfill and radiation contaminated shoreline. Building 606 housed the SFPD beginning in 1996. Multiple cancers have been reported including brain cancer, lung cancer, thyroid cancer and two canine deaths from cancer.

Ahimsa means lover of animals. Ahimsa Animal Welfare is the philosophy of nonviolence, respect and care for all living things. In Jainism, Ahimsa means to be without harm, to be utterly harmless, not only towards oneself and others, but to all forms of life, from the largest mammals to the smallest bacteria. 

Ahimsa, while meaning nonviolence and no harm, according to Gandhi, also means the largest love – truth and fearlessness. 

Ahimsa is invoked in the Mahabharata to condemn cruel practices, the futile destructiveness of worldly existence and to proclaim the sanctity and dignity of life.

In the April 2021 Statesman article “Gandhi’s Ahimsa,” author Jaydev Jana cites the aphorism found in the Mahabharata: “Ahimsa param dharma.” Ahimsa as the highest religion as a cardinal virtue and fundamental tenet of three major religions – Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

“To Gandhi, Ahimsa was not only the means but also the end. It was not only during the struggle for freedom that he wanted Ahimsa to be practiced. He wanted a non-violent society.”

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.