by Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai
This report was presented to the Bayview Hunters Point Environmental Justice Task Force Jan. 19, 2022.
“This form of environmental racism poses serious and disproportionate threats to the enjoyment of human rights of its largely African American residents, including the right to equality and non-discrimination, the right to life, the right to health and the right to an adequate standard of living and cultural rights.” – United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commission
On March 2, 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Commission issued a harshly worded condemnation of plans to advance industrialization of Cancer Alley – an 85-mile chemical corridor sited along the Mississippi River extending from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, where 150 petrochemical plants operate and where clusters of cancers have been detected that disproportionately burden descendants of enslaved Africans forced to labor in the sweltering heat of sugar cane fields.
Research published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology in January of 2022 concludes there has been a 50-fold increase in the production of chemicals since 1950 and that “chemical pollution threatens Earth’s systems by damaging the biological and physical processes that underpin all life.”
“Chemical pollution has crossed a planetary boundary, the point at which human-made changes to the Earth push it outside the stable environment of the last 10,000 years.”
On Oct. 8, 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a hard-fought historic resolution recognizing access to a healthy and sustainable environment as a universal right.
According to data from the EPA National Air Toxic Assessment map, the cancer risks in predominantly African American Districts of St. James Parish average 105 cases per million in contrast with predominantly white districts where cancer risks are as low as 60 per million.
In 2018, the St. James Parish Council approved the Sunshine Project, allowing one of the world’s largest plastics facilities to be sited in Cancer Alley which, along with new methanol complexes, will boost toxic air emissions generated by over 150 existing petrochemical plants in the region.
The proposed plant will double cancer risks, according to EPA projections, and generate annual carbon dioxide emissions in St. James Parish exceeding 113 countries. Fourteen United Nations Human Rights experts branded the industrial expansion and granting of pollution permits to these industries as “environmental racism.” Many Cancer Alley residents live within 500 feet of chain link fence lines separating industrial plants from churches, schools and playgrounds.
“It’s easy to get used to atrocities that are happening in your own backyard, but when you step back and look at the situation along Cancer Alley, it rises to the level of human rights abuse and a humanitarian tragedy.” – Anne Rolfes, Louisiana Bucket Brigade
“The African American descendants of the enslaved people who once worked the land are today the primary victims of deadly environmental pollution that these petrochemical plants in their neighborhoods have caused … We call on the United States and St. James Parish to recognize and pay reparations for the centuries of harm to Afro-descendants rooted in slavery and colonialism.” – United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, March 2, 2021
A look at Cancer Alley from the front lines
“According to the Centers for Disease Control, Louisiana has consistently ranked among the states with the highest rates of cancer. Geographic Information System (GIS) mappings conducted by the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice proves there is not only a correlation between industrial pollution and race in nine Louisiana parishes along the Cancer Alley chemical corridor but that pollution sources increase as the population of African Americans increases.” – “Surviving Cancer Alley: A Story of Five Communities”
But, while residents of Cancer Alley face a cancer risk from exposure to toxic air contaminants 20 times greater than the national average, Louisiana is not on the list of the top 10 states with the greatest number of dangerous chemical emitting facilities. With 886 petrochemical facilities, California is!
The New York Times notable book “What the Eyes Don’t See” tells the dramatic story of the Flint Water Crisis, written by a relentless physician who stood up to power. In the summer of 2015 Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician, was told by her friend Elin that rumors of lead in Flint’s drinking water were true.
Along with Elin and her colleagues Jenny, a scientist, and Marc Edwards, an activist, and a mushrooming coalition, they exposed the Flint Water Crisis and the negligence, corruption and complicity that led to it. By 2021, criminal charges had been filed against 15 Michigan state and Flint city officials. Michigan Health Director Nick Lyons faces nine felony manslaughter charges.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services released the cancer report for the county on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020, that finds cancer incidence rates in Genesee County to be higher than the rest of Michigan in the aftermath of the Flint Water Crisis.
A disease or cancer cluster is defined by the CDC as a greater than expected number of cases of a disease in a geographic area over a period of time that meets several criteria:
- The observed number of cases is higher than an observer would expect in a similar population.
- The cases involve the same type of cancer or cancers known to be induced by the same cause.
- The population in which the cluster has been detected can be defined by anthropometric factors such as race, ethnicity, age or gender.
- The geographic boundaries of the cluster can be defined.
- The observed number of cases in the cluster and expected number of cases can be defined over a time period in which the cases occurred.
The California Department of Public Health verified eight disease and cancer clusters in the state by 2011. In addition, independent researchers detected “significantly increased rates of cancer of radiosensitive organs” in population centers adjacent to the nine major nuclear installations in the U.S., including Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos laboratories operating under the auspices of the University of California.
According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), these disease clusters highlight the need to protect people from toxic chemicals by directing federal assistance to state and local health officials to investigate suspected disease clusters and their causes and by eliminating toxic releases through enforcement of strong environmental controls.
Cancer Alley at the Hunters Point Shipyard, a system of federal Superfund sites
“A new report claims that the Navy’s cleanup efforts at the site of San Francisco’s new $8 billion neighborhood rely on outdated safety standards, equivalent to those used by the EPA in 1991. The cleanup level for radium 226 – which is responsible for most of the site’s radiological contamination – is nearly 900 times higher than the level permitted by the EPA.
“These low standards could mean a greater number of workers and future residents face a higher risk of cancer due to the sites residual contamination. San Francisco’s planned $8 billion neighborhood has a radioactive past, and it may put people at a higher risk of cancer than experts thought.” – Aria Bendix, Business Insider, Oct. 31, 2018
Hate to say I told you so – for over 25 years! It should come as no surprise that disease and cancer clusters are being mapped by the Hunters Point Biomonitoring Foundation, Inc., as it enters four years of operation as the nation’s first human biomonitoring program established to offer urinary toxic exposure screenings to residents and workers at a federal Superfund system.
A paper trail of public health research, epidemiological disease tracking, investigative journalism and a string of lawsuits offer clear evidence of cancer and disease clusters in the 94124 zip code and census tracts bordering the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.
In 1995, lead investigator Dr. Frances Taylor released an SFDPH study conducted in response to “pleas from the predominantly African American neighborhood. Many residents believe they’re victims of environmental racism, suffering from cancer, asthma and other diseases caused by industrial development that no one else wanted.”
The investigation detected a cluster of breast cancer in women as young as 20. African American women accounted for much of the excess incidence and mortality.
The 2004 SFGate investigation “Too young to die, part one: Life’s toll” detected infant mortality rates in BVHP twice as high as the rest of the city and among the highest in the state. Statistical analysis revealed the risk of being poor and African American alone did not account for the cluster of excessive infant deaths in the 94124 zip code.
A string of lawsuits filed against Lennar and its subcontractors, Gordon N. Ball, Inc., and CH2M Hill, began in 2007 when attorney Angela Alioto, former president of the SF Board of Supervisors, accused Lennar of “environmental racism” for allowing clouds of toxic construction dust to escape from the shipyard development site “exposing neighbors and school children to potentially harmful airborne asbestos.”
In deposition testimony, Gary McIntyre stated that following heavy grading of the Hunters Point hilltop in the spring of 2006 Lennar refused to shut down work even when air monitors detected asbestos in concentrations triple the state allowance. McIntyre developed symptoms of asthma, skin rash and hair loss documented in medical records and reported being laughed at in a meeting by Lennar executives for his hair loss. Lennar was cited three times that year by SFDPH for dust violations and fined over $500,000 by BAAQMD.
The San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously in support of a resolution calling for a temporary moratorium and independent health assessment during a Sept. 7, 2007, community hearing in which parents, students, teachers, custodians and school nurses attested to a cluster of asthma, pneumonia, nosebleeds and headaches in Hunters Point children, adults and school employees triggered during the grading of over 1.2 million tons of serpentinite rock from the Hunters Point hilltop.
Lawsuits were filed in Superior Court charging whistleblower retaliation and wrongful termination by Christopher Carpenter, a Parcel A worker fired following a physical altercation with a supervisor over dangerous deep soil excavations and toxic dust emissions that “enveloped him in a cloud” while working in 2006. Carpenter died in 2016 of the rare cancer peripheral T-cell lymphoma and is the principle deceased plaintiff for the 9,000-plaintiff Hunters Point Community Lawsuit.
On June 19, 2008, 18 Bayview Hunters Point residents and workers sued Lennar and its contractors in superior court on behalf of their minor children who suffered headaches, skin rashes and respiratory ailments during the Parcel A excavations.
Marsae Scott, a minor, et al v. Lennar Corporation et al was appealed on May 22, 2013, in a tort action arising from “their alleged exposure to hazardous substances in dust displaced by defendants during the grading of a redevelopment project. On appeal, plaintiffs argued triable issues of fact exist to support causation of all claims.”
The San Francisco Department of Public Health and UCSF Professor John Balmes, a Lennar consultant, provided testimony opposing child plaintiffs who required hospitalization and ER care for asthma, nosebleeds and pneumonia.
“It is highly unlikely that exposure to naturally occurring asbestos from grading operations at Parcel A will create a significant risk to human health in the community.” – John Balmes, M.D., UCSF professor of medicine and chief of occupational and environmental medicine at SF General Hospital in Scott v. Lennar
In a March 2019 letter to San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Tomas Aragon, M.D., Dr.PH, documented a 31 percent increase in lung cancer in men in the 94124 zip code – weakly attributed to smoking!
Nick Squires is the “citizen scientist” and former resident of West Hanover, Mass., who developed a rare brain tumor and spent years mapping cases among childhood friends and neighbors living within two miles of the shuttered National Fireworks company.
The Massachusetts Cancer Registry reviewed data for census tracts in Hanover and found “statistical elevations in the incidence of invasive and benign brain and central nervous system tracts from 2006 to 2015,” but did not detect spatial and temporal distributions linking the cluster to the suspected source of exposure. EPA investigations of the fireworks site detected arsenic, VOCs and carcinogenic heavy metals. All have been linked to cancer.
Unlike the geospatial clustering of radiosensitive cancers around a radiation source evident in the HP Biomonitoring cancer cluster, the patterns of cancer cases mapped in both West Hanover and Acreage, Fla., are diffuse and more consistent with a drinking water source than airborne transmission. In Acreage, the state health department verified the cancer cluster and environmental testing detected Radium 226 in drinking water, but a source of exposure was never confirmed.
The contagiosity of courage: The role of the citizen scientist and community activist in surviving Cancer Alley
From the Gulf Coast to Acreage, from West Hanover to the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in San Bernardino County, Calif., from Flint to Bayview Hunters Point – communities find hope, inspiration and the strength to stand tall against government silence and corruption, corporate greed, environmental racism and systematic genocide through the contagiosity of courage of environmental activism and citizen science!
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.