There is no safe level for asbestos exposure
EDITORIAL A committee of the San Francisco school board is discussing some sort of voluntary program to test for toxic exposure kids who attend facilities near Lennar Corp.'s construction project at Hunters Point. That's set off a modest fury in the Department of Public Health, which insists there's no threat to the public and no reason to test anyone. And the school district almost certainly doesn't have the money to conduct a testing program for hundreds of students.
But the city should never have allowed this situation to develop to this point. And if there is real concern in the community (which there is) and any credible evidence that asbestos might be present in the air (which there is), then the Department of Public Health ought to do the only prudent thing and order a series of air and ground tests in the immediate vicinity of the Lennar site.
Lennar, as we've reported (see "The Corporation That Ate San Francisco," 3/14/07), is running a massive Redevelopment Agency construction project on part of the old Hunters Point Shipyard. The construction stirs up a lot of dust, and there's naturally occurring asbestos in the rock below. There may be other forms of toxic material in the dirt too, left by the military, which was never terribly good about keeping its bases clean.
The company was supposed to do air monitoring near the site; state law requires stringent tests whenever construction that could stir up asbestos takes place near an area where children congregate, and there are schools and rec centers right near the Lennar project. But the subcontractor handling the tests bungled them, so for 13 months there was no data on air quality at all.
The Muhammad University of Islam, a private school that adjoins the site, has been demanding better monitoring and asking for students to be relocated if the site isn't safe. Some of the tactics of school representatives have been questionable: Department of Public Health workers going door to door in the neighborhood report that school supporters followed and intimidated them. And since there's naturally occurring asbestos in rock, and the substance is used in products like car brakes, it's entirely possible that there's some presence of the deadly fibers in the air anyway, unrelated to anything Lennar may have done wrong. The Department of Public Health wants to avoid a needless panic.
But that doesn't change the basic point: if there's toxic dust in the air, and kids are being exposed, the public needs to know about it.
There is no safe level for asbestos exposure. The stuff can linger in the ground for years, and if it's even slightly stirred up, it gets into the air, and breathing it is directly linked to fatal lung disease. It wouldn't be that hard for a city team to take a few samples from the soil around the construction site; if the stuff is pretty thick on the ground, then kids clearly shouldn't be playing there, and if the levels are even minor, then parents ought to be aware.
The supervisors failed on a 6<\d>5 vote to approve a measure that would have called on Lennar to shut down construction, but they can certainly direct the Department of Public Health to conduct some basic safety tests and make the results public.<\!s>*