By Sarah Phelan
ATSDR's Region 9 office covers a lot of ground, including San Francisco's Hunters Point Shipyard.
Susan Muza works at the Region 9 office of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. That's the agency that agreed on July 17 to do a public health assessment of Lennar's development at Parcel A of the Hunters Point Shipyard where fear runs high that the community may have been exposed to toxic asbestos dust.
Community members voiced those fears during a July 31 Board hearing, but the Board voted 6-5 against urging the SF Department of Health to temporarily shutting down Lennar's construction site, until health concerns had been addressed.
As it happens, ATSDR has experience with such assessments in California, thanks to Oak Ridge High School in El Dorado County, where naturally occurring asbestos was identified in surrounding rocks and where a vein of asbestos was disturbed during construction of a soccer field at the school.
Muza told me that at Oak Ridge High, ATSDR sampled and tested soil from baseball and soccer fields, parking lots, as well as dust collected from a school classroom that had potentially been affected by a leaf blower.
What ATSDR found, says Muza, was that “sports coaches, outdoor maintenance staff and student athletes had the potential to be exposed at levels higher than previously thought.”
In the case of Lennar’s Parcel A development, the classrooms and basketball courts of the Muhammed University of Islam sit on the other side of a chain link fence, where massive amounts of asbestos-laden rock were moved in the last year, but where air monitors weren’t operating for three months, and watering was inadequate for six months.
“At Oak Ridge High, we recommended that people try to limit any further exposure and that those most highly exposed inform their physicians that they had potentially been exposed to asbestos, that they should monitor for signs of disease, related to that exposure, and that they should participate in very good preventative care, such as flu shots, to make sure their respiratory health stays healthy," Muza said.
ATSDR is also monitoring cancer registers in the EL Dorado area.
As Muza notes, “one big problem with asbestos is it has a long lag time. The period between exposure happening and disease manifesting can be 10-40 years.”
Although the San Francisco Department of Public Health has claimed that workers were wearing CAL OSHA authorized asbestos monitors at the Hunters Point shipyard site and that CAL OSHA did not report any exposure exceedances, Muza told me that ATSDR does not support using worker asbestos limits in evaluating community members’ exposures, other than as a reference point.
As ATSDR’s website explains, “worker limits are based on risk levels that would be considered unacceptable in nonworker populations.”
The reasoning behind disqualifying worker limits as a valid assessment tool is that community members may be children who are lower to ground, more active and have higher metabolisms. Or they may be seniors, or residents who live near the site, 24/7.
“No exposure to asbestos is good,” says Muza. “We are all exposed to it, thanks to brake linings, amongst other things, but we want to keep our exposure as minimal as we can.”
In the case of Oak Ridge High, ATSDR recommended some removal activities, because material from the vein of asbestos that got broken when the soccer field was built, got spread around the school.
“And we recommended paving and landscaping activities to reduce people’s ability to being exposed,” adds Muza, noting that ATSDR did not recommend that Oak Ridge High be closed or relocated.
In San Francisco, ATSDR plans to evaluate the asbestos dust mitigation plan that Lennar agreed to when it got the green light to begin development on Parcel A in 2005. ATSDR will also evaluate how Lennar actually implemented that plan, along with results from air monitors, and any other data that they can ascertain will be helpful.
“We also plan to gather community concerns, be very transparent and talk to everyone,” says Muza who has sent out a letter to stakeholders, including the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the Bayview Hunters Point Project Area Committee, the Hunters Point Shipyard Citizens Advisory Committee, The San Francisco Chapter of the NAACP, the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, and, of course, the Muhammed University of Islam.
Says Muza, “We will summarize the concerns we hear, sort out what we can address from what we can’t and come to the community with a plan.”