In Richmond, is it safe to eat your garden fruits and veggies?

Panelists at town hall meeting on platform strewn with wilted plants from local gardens

Questions remain about the safety of eating homegrown fruits and vegetables from gardens in Richmond and other areas affected by a fire at the Chevron refinery August 6.

The official line from Contra Costa County--where residents were told to shelter-in-place during Monday evening's fire--is to wash the produce in your gardens extra well.

"It's safe to eat your fruit and vegetables," said Randy Sawyer, the county's chief environmenta and hazardous materials officer. "We do recommend that you wash them in a weak soap solution like a dish soap." If there was harmful residue on the plants, it would be visible, he said. "It wouldn't be a dust product, it would be sooty."

But local gardeners and environmentalists beg to differ, and many are anxious about the fire's potential long-term effect on the area's urban agriculture. At a tense community meeting on Tuesday night, gardeners from Urban Tilth rolled in wheelbarrows of wilted produce they said was destroyed by the refinery fire, which was contained after a few hours but burned into the night. 

"We have extreme concerns," Urban Tilth executive director Doria Robinson told the Guardian. "We're trying to work with soil and air quality scientists to figure out what we need to test and how we can test it to determine what is safe. In the meantime, we can't stand by the food we have."

Until we know what chemicals were burning in the fire and what remains in the air, it's dangerous to assume our garden products are not contamminated, said Robinson, a Richmond resident herself. "If it's particulate matter or dust, in theory you can wash it off. At the same time, you're not exactly sure how certain chemicals react. More importantly, if you can wash the plant, what happens to the soil? Heavy metals like mercury are used in some processing. If that stuff was in the plume and it deposited in the soil" there could be lasting detrimental effects on our gardens, she said. 

When a Richmond resident at Tuesday's community meeting asked what chemicals might be in the air, and Jeff McKay, Deputy Air Pollution Control Officer at Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), listed hydrogen sulfide, benzene, sulfur dioxide, and styrene. All four compounds are either considered poisonous, or suspected to be carcinogens. 

The BAAQMD' lab analysis report tested for 23 compounds, including Benzene, but not the other three chemicals. Most of the chemicals “have been identified by the state of California as Toxic Air Contaminants," according to the BAAQMD. And although the same report insists that the air pollution levels were "significantly below federal health standards," the San Francisco Chronicle reported that 1,700 people ended up in the emergency room with respitory problems during or after the fire. 

Robinson said it is extremely difficult to trace health problems to individual pollutants. 

"The way that companies like Chevron have been able to pollute the air without liability is it's extremely hard to trace back, and they can point to things like the highways," she said. "This particular instance was so extreme that if we get a list of what was burning, we might be able to trace it back for the first time."

Robinson and her team hope to have a plan to test Urban Filth's produce by Monday, though she said financial barriers will make a comprehensive analysis difficult or impossible. Until the products are deemed safe, the organization is planning on suspending its school programs and refraining from eating from its 11 Richmond gardens, and Robinson urged residents to do the same with their personal plants.

"Before we take someone else's word for it, we owe it to ourselves and our community" to ensure our food is clean, she said.