by SF Bay View Health and Environmental Science Editor Ahimsa Porter Sumchai MD
“In addition to NOT measuring 90 percent of the radionuclides of concern, 90 percent of the measurements that were made on soil samples didn’t measure for two of the four radionuclides admitted by the Navy to be key at the Hunters Point Shipyard: strontium-90 and plutonium-239. The soil samples were mainly measured for gamma emitters. Strontium-90 and plutonium-239 are beta and alpha emitters.” – “The great majority of Hunters Point sites were never sampled for radioactive contaminants,” by Daniel Hirsch et al, Committee to Bridge the Gap, October 2018
It should be easy enough to detect an elephant in a room – it would occupy the entire space and crowd out animals less gigantic in weight and size. And yet the elephant in the room at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard goes unnoticed and unspoken.
The elephant in the room at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard goes unmentioned in Navy documents and city government reports yet hides in plain sight during environmental testing. The Navy does not look for the elephant in the room and when it does the elephant detected is massive in size. The elephant in the room at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard is plutonium.
Like an elephant in a room and a bull in a china shop, plutonium is what you get when you make uranium more radioactive. Plutonium-239 was artificially synthesized on March 28, 1941, by bombarding uranium 238 with neutrons. Plutonium in the environment exists in the form of microscopic particles – remnants of nuclear weapons testing.
“The element plutonium was discovered by Nobel Laureate Glenn T. Seaborg and colleagues in February 1941. The 60-inch cyclotron at the University of California at Berkeley produced the first isotope of plutonium, Pu-238. It was made by bombarding a U-238 target with deuterons, producing Np-238. … The radionuclide Np-238 decayed (by emitting beta-radiation) to Pu-238 …
“The isotope Pu-239 was produced on March 28, 1941, by bombarding a U-238 target with neutrons to produce U-239 … This radionuclide decayed by beta emission … to Pu-239 (which has a very long half-life of 24,600 years),” according to Scientific American.
Plutonium has 20 radioactive isotopes with half-lives ranging from 80 million years for Pu-244 to 24,600 years for Pu-239. Pu-239 and Pu-241 are fissile isotopes capable of sustaining a nuclear chain reaction. Pu-239 is the fissile isotope used in the production of the “Fat Man” plutonium bombs unleashed on Nagasaki in 1945 and detonated underwater during Operations Crossroads on July 25, 1946.
Fat Man in the room at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard
“There will probably be enough plutonium near the surface to poison the combined armed forces of the United States at their highest wartime strength.” – Los Alamos Laboratory estimate of the Shot Baker underwater atomic test, National Security Archive Bikini A-Bomb Tests, July 1946
Parcel F is the sediment area of the decommissioned naval base. Plutonium was detected by the Navy in concentrations 44 times higher than background in the northern berths region of the Hunters Point Shipyard where Operation Crossroads ships were docked and in the Parcel B submarine area, where the shipyard artists’ colony is currently sited.
According to historical records, up to 90 Operation Crossroads target and support ships were towed back to Hunters Point in 1946, where workers sandblasted them in futile efforts to remove radioactive contamination after exposure to plutonium bombs. The aircraft carrier USS Independence, “damaged by shock waves, heat and radiation,” remained docked at the shipyard for years, emitting radiation until 1951, when it was sunk by the Navy off California’s Farallon Islands.
Hunters Point Biomonitoring prepares to conduct rapid emergency urinary screenings for plutonium radioisotopes
The Hunters Point Biomonitoring Foundation Inc., in collaboration with James Dahlgren Medical, has launched a human biomonitoring initiative to conduct rapid emergency urinary screenings to detect what author Jeremy Bernstein titles “plutonium, the world’s most dangerous element.”
“Plutonium is a toxic synthetic element with no natural biological functions. Not only is it useless to the body – it is strongly retained by humans when ingested, primarily lodging in bone and liver cells where it can release harmful alpha radiation.” – Mark Jensen, Argonne National Laboratory Nature Chemical Biology online, June 26, 2011
A team of scientists in Japan and China developed and tested a human urine bioassay capable of rapidly detecting plutonium isotopes Pu-239, Pu-240 and Pu-241 in trace amounts. The investigators cite the need for rapid assessment of the exposure level in detecting Pu for the purpose of radiation protection and medical intervention and offer urinalysis as the most basic and straightforward technique for bioassay.
HP Biomonitoring currently relies on a urinary toxic exposure screening capable of detecting 35 potential toxicants including radioactive elements of concern documented in the Historical Radiological Assessment. The urinary screening detects barium, bismuth, cobalt, cesium, gadolinium, potassium, niobium, nickel, lead, strontium, thorium, thallium and uranium. It does not detect two key radioactive elements of concern at HPNS – radium and plutonium.
The Navy conducted biomonitoring on fish and shellfish in the Parcel F feasibility study but did not test for plutonium despite its detection in concentrations 44 times greater than background along the shipyard shoreline.
A disturbing amount of research exists on human biomonitoring of plutonium exposed populations. Data on plutonium activity in lung, vertebrae and liver in 236 deceased residents were obtained during autopsy as part of the Los Alamos Tissue Program. Autopsy tissue taken from residents living adjacent to Los Alamos National Laboratory detected elevated levels of plutonium in lung tissue linked to length of residential exposure.
The Manhattan Project Human Plutonium Injection Experiment conducted in 1944 and 1945 researched urinary excretion of plutonium injected in three patients – including a 58-year-old house painter injected with plutonium on May 14, 1945, at the University of California hospital in San Francisco. The first urinary excretion curves for plutonium were developed based on unethical research conducted on patients who were not informed they had received a radioactive injection:
“The Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory Experience with Plutonium in Man,” led by W.H. Langham, presents the medical experience with exposure to Pu-239 using a method of estimating body burden using urinary analyses. The researchers found plutonium concentrations in pulmonary lymph nodes, lung tissue and liver to be higher than in bone in 27 Los Alamos Lab personnel who had accumulated plutonium body burdens ranging from 0.1 to 1.3 uq – 0.007–0.09 uc.
The exposure was determined to be via inhalation as indicated by a strong correlation between high urine counts and Pu contamination in the nasal vestibule: “There was clear evidence of a linear association between cumulative internal plutonium lung dose and risk of lung cancer mortality.”
The Mayak Production Association was the first plutonium production plant built, in haste and total secrecy, in 1945 by 40,000 prisoners and POWs as part of the Soviet Union’s atomic bomb project. The number of Mayak workers exposed to large internal and external doses of plutonium is 18,831.
“At the request of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the Greater Bay Area Cancer Registry (BGACR) at the University of California San Francisco conducted a cancer incidence analysis for Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood for the period 2008-2012. The GBACR analysis identified a 31 percent increase in lung cancer cases among men. This finding was statistically significant.” – Tomas Aragon, MD DrPH, Health Officer, March 6, 2019
Speaking truth to environmental toxic exposures
The Hunters Point Biomonitoring Foundation Inc. dedicates the HP Biomonitoring Plutonium Screening Initiative to the memory of Dr. Janette Sherman, pioneering physician, chemist and toxicological researcher known for her work on radiation and breast cancer. Dr. Sherman studied the effects of radiation and thermal burns as a researcher at Building 815 – headquarters for the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratories.
In the 2017 SF Bay View article “Less than one lifetime,” Dr. Sherman writes: “I remember monitoring a building where plutonium was refined. When plutonium decays and emits alpha particles, there is a ‘kickback,’ thus plutonium had crept out of the laboratories and spread contamination as far as the building entrance.” Dr. Sherman’s medical-legal files are preserved by the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health.
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.