Day by Day, Elders Breathe Toxins In Hunter's Point

Part 2 of 3; See Part 1

Nahmyo Thomas

SAN FRANCISCO (N21) - Breathing even small doses of chemicals over time may be lethal for elders living in polluted neighborhoods. Eighty-six-year-old Chestine Mason knows this all too well.

She’s lived in San Francisco’s predominantly African American Hunters Point district for a half century. A decade ago, her husband died of lung cancer caused by breathing asbestos. Now she watches as her grandchildren grow up in the same environment.

She’s grown weary of big corporations that tell customers to be environmentally friendly while continuing to generate high volumes of waste, defying state and national pollution caps set by the EPA.

“They’re always down my throat, ‘Go green. Go green,’” she says. “Yet these people can spew whatever they want, and they’re not forced to do anything, [while] spewing this disease.”

Ethnic elders in Hunters Point suffer largely from chronic respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis and lung cancer as well as heart disease and many unexplainable allergies.

Like older Americans in other polluted communities nationwide, their particular circumstances are a bit different, complicating efforts to devise a national strategy to address the problem.

Here, the exposure to hazardous chemicals that aggravate respiratory conditions is unique because Hunters Point itself is built on serpentine rock, which releases naturally occurring asbestos into the air when disturbed. Prolonged exposure is correlated with a severe risk of lung cancer and even death.

This was the case of Ms. Mason’s husband who worked on the Naval Shipyard here before it was shut down and designated a toxic Superfund site.

According to Marie Harrison, a local resident and community organizer for Greenaction, “almost every biopsy turns up positive traces of asbestos. Regardless of whether it was the cause of death or not, it accumulates in the lungs.”

Long-term Impacts
Saul Bloom, CEO of Arc Ecology, a San Francisco organization dedicated to environmental responsibility, is largely concerned about the acute effects on elders who have lived in the neighborhood the longest.

“It’s just like smoking cigarettes,” he said. “When you’re young you can still smoke and run up a hill … [but] the capacity to run up a hill diminishes.”

Seniors suffer from a residual presence of toxins in their lungs, making them more vulnerable to disease. “Even a small dosage will have a harsher effect on the elderly,” Bloom said.

From 1929 to 2006, Pacific Gas and Electric alone emitted an average of 600 tons of pollutants per year directly over Hunters Point. The chemicals included 321 tons annually of nitrous oxide and 52 tons of particulate matter, which is easily inhaled deep into the lungs, but not easily exhaled.

Particulates are inflammatory agents that cause the lungs and other internal organs to swell. They corrode cells, aggravate respiratory functions and lead to lung diseases and neurological damage.

The Bay Area Air Quality District measures 39 pollutants in San Francisco’s neighborhoods. The highest concentrations, and 20 of the pollutants, are found in Hunters Point where approximately 70 percent of the households are African American.

Of these pollutants, the six major chemicals that the EPA monitors are ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, lead, sulfate, particulate matter. In California and Hunters Point, both ozone and particulate matter fail to meet the EPA’s required levels.

State and city officials are responsible for regulating emissions, but without public interest on the issue of chemical overdoses, some industrial plants are willing to break the rules for up to 360 days a year. Their only punishment is to pay a few thousand dollars in fines administered by the EPA.

“Our city government is in charge of all this,” said Mason. But she said the majority of city supervisors, and all of the industry executives, live in different areas. “They don’t understand what it means to grow old in these circumstances.”

A Hazardous Matrix
In the 5.5-square mile area of Hunters Point, hundreds of diesel trucks weave their way through a matrix of over 500 back-to-back heavy and light industrial companies and commercial establishments.

There is a Mirant power plant; remnants of the old PG&E power plant; an uncovered sewage treatment plant; an animal incinerator; a cement manufacturing plant; two major freeways; train tracks; 187 leaking underground fuel tanks; more than 124 hazardous waste handlers; and a 638-acre former Naval Shipyard – which is on the National Priority List of Superfund sites.

There are also more than 100 so-called vacant Brownfield sites, which may need treatment for toxic materials before the land can be redeveloped.

Gerald Gage, Asthma Program Coordinator of the local Health Environmental Resource Center, defines a Superfund site as being so dirty “that it cannot be cleaned without federal funding.” But even now, after over 20 years of being recognized as a Superfund site, the majority of the neighborhood remains poisoned by unsafe levels of lead and mercury, while sprinklers line the perimeter to keep asbestos from rising.

San Francisco's tourists and residents rarely visit the area, while experts say many neighbors are unaware of the gravity of their circumstances, especially as they age.

Many long-term residents like Mason shrug their shoulders because they don’t think there’s much they can do to change the system.

“The people here don’t have a voice or the political backing,” said Gage.According to Harrison, the community is largely uninterested. “A lot of blacks think they are put in a situation and there’s nothing they can do about it, so they accept the circumstances,” she said.

Familial Concerns
The worst part for many low-income elders is watching the impact on their children and grandchildren. According to the Elder Economic Security Initiative, more than one in 10 seniors live in poverty and often have to choose between receiving health care for themselves or their family members.

This problem is exacerbated in neighborhoods where environmental health problems worsen mental and physical ailments.

Mason, for example, picks up her great-granddaughter from school twice a week, breathing in fumes from the common site of idling school buses. But, here, the air is also polluted because 15 trucking companies house and operate their diesel-emitting fleets in Hunters Point. 

Gage points out the trucks during the "Toxic Tours" he offers to visitors. “All day long, you just see trucks," he said.One heavy-duty, 18-wheel truck can generate the same amount of pollution as 150 cars.

Diesel exhaust alone contains 40 chemicals identified as toxic health contaminants, including particulate matter, a major contributor to the rates of asthma found in Hunters Point, where one in six children suffers from the disease. It is the highest rate in San Francisco, and three times that of the national rate.

Community activists are urging lawmakers to increase pollution monitoring, educate the community and close the gap in health disparities.

The San Francisco African American Community Health Equity Council has called for improved air monitoring and wants the results shared in the community. It has also called for more healthcare screenings, educational programs and resources for preventative actions.

Until such considerations are adequately enforced, the ethnic elders of Hunter’s Point continue to face health dangers. People may be sick and dying prematurely, but Harrison says, “there’s just not enough attention.”

Nahmyo Thomas wrote this story for as part of a New America Media journalism fellowship sponsored by The Atlantic Philanthropies. It is being distributed through as the second part in a three-part series.