Environmental Justice

Ahimsa Porter Sumchai MD
13 min readNov 20, 2021

Signed…Sealed…and Delivered!

“Let me be clear…I know that we have to rebuild trust. I know that this didn’t happen overnight and won’t be resolved overnight. So our commitment is to do better, leverage our enforcement, work with Congress to get the toughest laws in place that are adequate and protective…and to do this in concert with community members who have been advocating this for decades.” EPA Administrator Michael Regan — https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/nov/17/michael-regan-epa-louisiana-cancer-alley-visit (AP Photo/Nic Coury)

Environmental justice is on the way to the “Cancer Alleys” and “Sacrifice Zones’ of the United States. EPA Administrator Michael Regan launched his “Journey to Justice” tour and pledge to “ hold everyone accountable” on November 17, 2021. Regan was warmly welcomed by residents of Reserve, Louisiana where the risk of cancer is 50 times greater than the national average and the highest in the country. Toxic air pollution from a petrochemical plant built on the site of a former plantation is blamed for emitting over 50 chemicals above a community in the heart of “Cancer Alley”- an 85 mile stretch along the Mississippi River thronged with oil refineries and chemical plants and where most households includes a relative who has died from cancer. [https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/video/2019/may/03/reserve-louisiana-cancertown-video]

Poison in the Air

ProPublica — a non profit newsroom that investigates abuses of power created a first-of-its-kind map and data analysis of “Sacrifice Zones”- where residents breath carcinogens in toxic air emissions from polluting industries. Using advanced data processing and modeling tools developed by the EPA, Propublica undertook an analysis of the location of the nations Sacrifice Zones where air pollution from industrial plants is increasing cancer risks for an estimated quarter of a million Americans to unacceptable levels.

In response to ProPublica’s findings the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation issued a statement acknowledging “Toxic air emissions from industrial facilities are a problem that must be addressed. Under President Joe Biden’s administration the EPA has reinvigorated its commitment to protect public health from toxic air emissions from industrial facilities in communities suffering disproportionately from air pollution and environmental burdens.”

Census tracts where the majority of residents are people of color experience 40% more cancer causing toxic air contaminants than census tracts that are predominantly white. The major Sacrifice Zone of cancer causing petrochemical emissions in the San Francisco Bay Area are the Martinez and Richmond oil refineries.

View of the Martinez Refinery in Martinez, California on April 27, 2020. Photo: Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group

On January 20, 2021 by the authority vested in the President by the United States Constitution, Joseph R Biden, Jr issued the White House Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment that embodies the fundamental policy that:

“Our Nation has an abiding commitment to empower our workers and communities; promote and protect our public health and the environment; and conserve our national treasures and monuments — places that secure our national memory. Where the Federal Government has failed to meet that commitment in the past, it must advance environmental justice.”[https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/20/executive-order-protecting-public-health-and-environment-and-restoring-science-to-tackle-climate-crisis/

President Joe Biden announcing his administration’s environmental and energy team on January 27, 2021 Photo: Kriston Jae Bethel for the New York Times

In addition to being capable, effective and proven leaders, President Joe Biden and EPA Administrator Michael Regan share one important personal trait - both grew up in fence line communities next door to polluting industries… and both witnessed the agonizing death of their sons from brain cancer.

10 year old Sammy Johnson died in his mother’s arms of a rare cancer of the brainstem induced by exposure to radiation and carcinogenic heavy metals on September 20, 2021. Sammy was the only son of Nia and Eric Johnson who live less than a mile from the federal Superfund site at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Investigative Journalist Carol Harvey chronicled Sammy’s life and death in the SF Bayview at: https://sfbayview.com/2021/09/help-the-family-0f-10-year-old-sammy-johnson-who-died-in-his-mothers-arms-of-a-brain-tumor/

Samuel Ace Johnson was 10 years old on Monday, September 21, 2021 when he died in his mother’s arms with his father at his bedside in the family home - a mile west from the Crisp Road entry to the federal Superfund system at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.

Sammy was a San Francisco Giants fan in February of 2021 when his mother Nia Johnson left work as an LVN to devote full time attention to his care after he was diagnosed with a terrible childhood cancer called diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) that handed him a “death sentence” and nine months of survival.

Sammy Johnson wrapped in the “ginormous” love of his parents Nia and Eric at the 2014 Giants World Series Championship Trophy -AT&T Park in San Francisco.

There is no effective treatment for DIPG and no chance of survival. DIPG is a rapidly invasive and infiltrating cancer in a vital region of the brainstem that controls breathing, balance, swallowing, heart rate and blood pressure.

According to the American Cancer Society the most established risk factor for brain tumors is radiation exposure. [https://www.cancer.org/cancer/brain-spinal-cord-tumors-adults/causes-risks-prevention/risk-factors.html]

DIPG may respond temporarily to targeted radiation therapy but it is highly aggressive and infiltrates an area of the low the brainstem called the pons that controls vital functions including breathing, heart rate and blood pressure.

Recent research shows the brain is very sensitive to ionizing radiation and a child’s brain is more radiosensitive than an adults. The majority of brain tumors in children occur in the brainstem and their incidence in the US has dramatically increased possibly due to improved detection. Glioma is the most common childhood brain tumor in 47% of cases.[https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/3389/fonc.2021.620831/full].

Brainstem glioma in a child detected on MRI scan compressing vital structures in the narrow tunnel between the base of the skull and upper cervical spine that control breathing, swallowing, movement, heart rate and blood pressure.

An aggressive high grade glioma can double in size in seven weeks and radiation induced gliomas in children have been detected with a latency less than five years following exposure to ionizing radiation. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3830919/]

Five carcinogenic heavy metals have been shown to induce brain cancer in laboratory animals. Arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium and nickel are classified as Group 1 Carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4311389/]

Cancers of the brain, head, neck, breast and respiratory system are linked to air borne exposure to toxic pollutants by the World Trade Center Health Program. [https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_effects_arising_from_the_September_11_attacks]

Superfund National Priorities List Sites Where You Live — Overview

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced it added seven hazardous waste sites to the National Priorities List of Superfund Sites…Superfund is the federal program that investigates and cleans up complex, uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites in the country… The added sites include former mine, steel, metal finishing and landfill sites. The EPA also changed the name of the former Treasure Island Naval Station — Hunters Point Annex site in San Francisco, California to the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.” [https://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/centers/srp/news/2019news/np/index.cfm]

The CDC defines a cancer cluster as a “greater than expected number of cancer cases occurring within a group of people in a geographic area over a period of time.” The lifetime risk of developing brain cancer is 0.6% according to the American Cancer Society. Brain tumors offer a unique marker for environmental disease because they are so rare. When even a small cluster of cases is detected in spatial relationship to a known source of ionizing radiation the statistical significance is irrefutable. [Searching for the Roots of Brain Cancer — https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586–018–06709–2]

The Hunters Point Biomonitoring Foundation Geospatial mapping of a cancer cluster linked to ionizing radiation exposure in residents and workers within a one mile buffer zone of the federal Superfund system at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard and adjoining Yosemite Slough. Cases detected from 2010 to current. Pin colors correspond to following key: yellow: brain and central nervous system, red: breast, green: thyroid, white: leukemia, lymphoma and haematopoietic, blue: lung & airway, gold: pelvic, colon, reproductive, black: canine/feline cancer deaths

Little Sammy Johnson lives on as a yellow pin posted in a cluster of brain tumors detected one mile west of the Crisp Road entry to the federal Superfund site at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard and it’s radiation contaminated Parcel E-2 shoreline and industrial landfill.

The Parcel E-2 landfill is a federal Superfund site known to contain irradiated animal carcasses, radium dials and radioactive sand blast. Methane gas in concentrations as high as 60% in air is detected by the Navy in late summer. The Parcel E-2 shoreline is an earthquake liquefaction zone and highly susceptible to rising sea levels. The Navy is preparing to transfer Parcel E-2 to the City and County of San Francisco for open space development.

“In the Dark of the Valley is a feature film about the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a former nuclear and rocket-engine testing site near Los Angeles that aired on MSNBC on Sunday, Nov.14, 2021 at 10:00pm. The film is an in-depth exploration into the site’s long history of cover — ups and negligence by the site owners Boeing, NASA and the Department of Energy. It also tells the harrowing story of how a community of mothers, led by Melissa Bumstead, have dealt with the struggles of childhood cancer and their new found life of environmental advocacy. It features Dr. Bob Dodge and Denise Duffield of PSR-Los Angeles.

In the Dark of the Valley is an MSNBC documentary that aired on Sunday, November 14, 2021. It details the courage of people exposing the truth about the Santa Susana Radiation Laboratory, site of one of the largest nuclear accidents in U.S. history in 1959. Melissa Bumstead is a Southern California mother who lives 7 miles downhill from the site of a radiation meltdown concealed from the public for 20 years and never remediated.

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) was hidden in the hills above the San Fernando Valley. In Area IV of SSFL a stealth collaboration operated between the US Department of Energy, NASA and Boeing to research the “outer limits” of nuclear power. According to LA’s Nuclear Secret, “Years of mishandling dangerous radioactive waste materials and chemicals also left a toxic legacy for generations of people living near the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.” [https://data.nbcstations.com/national/KNBC/la-nuclear-secret/]

The feature film centers on the fierce maternal protectiveness of a community of mothers whose children have been diagnosed with cancer. It documents a cluster of childhood brain cancers that include two children on the same city block with the same rare form of brain cancer.

“They were shocked to hear the health officials explain that the community was definitely experiencing a cluster of pediatric brain tumors, as well as elevated rates of all cancers at all ages.”

Angry residents of the South Florida town Acreage at a 2010 community hearing where a cluster of childhood cancers detected by Jennifer Dunsford included four children with brain cancer living within two miles of a fireworks and munitions company. A state investigation validated existence of the cluster but did not hold the polluter accountable. Photo: Gary Coronado The Palm Beach Post

Radium 226 contaminated the drinking water of the South Florida town of Acreage. It took years for the families of children with cancer to connect the dots but by May of 2009, Jennifer Dunsford had constructed a database documenting dozens of cancers in Acreage and had notified the state health department. Jennifer Dunsfords’ five year old son Garrett underwent brain surgery that left his left arm paralyzed.

“When Becky heard from a friend that another child in the neighborhood had recently been diagnosed with a brain tumor, “I was like: what is going on?” Just after Hannah underwent surgery to remove her tumor, and less than a year after the boy — a 5 year old named Garrett Dunsford — had his brain surgery, the parents started talking.”

Only one in 40,000 children in the US is expected to develop a brain tumor each year. In Acreage -a town of 39,000 people- the investigation turned up 13 brain tumors between 1994 and 2007. The Florida Department of Health concluded the risk of a girl in Acreage developing a brain tumor was five and a half times higher than the rest of Florida. The Health Department investigation found children with cancer living 1,000 feet apart from one another.

A joint agency environmental investigation led by Governor Charlie Crist was conducted by the CDC, State and Palm Beach County Health Department and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The agencies tested well water and soil from thirty five homes for over 200 chemicals. Several contaminants were detected above EPA cleanup levels including radium 226, benzene and a host of common carcinogens. The contamination that distinguished Acreage most was ionizing radiation because it is an established cause of brain cancer and a byproduct of local industry.

Brain cancer survivor Nick Squires holds a map of brain cancer cases in his West Hanover neighborhood in 2019. Squires tracked brain tumor cases among his neighbors that prompted a Massachusetts state review that confirmed statistical elevations in brain and nervous system cancers in three census tracts from 2006–2015.

“Conclusively blaming a chemical culprit for a cancer cluster is so difficult that only three of 428 cluster investigations conducted in the United States since 1990 have established a link between pollution and illness.” Cancer Clusters in the USA: What do twenty years of state and federal investigations tell us? [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3408895]

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health Bureau of Environmental Health released findings of a review of the incidence of brain cancers among residents living within 2 miles of the former National Fireworks Company site in West Hanover. The state investigation validated the pioneering work conducted by brain cancer survivor Nick Squires in confirming “statistical elevations” in the incidences of invasive or benign brain and nervous system cancers in three census tracts from 2006 to 2015. The state investigation detected 36 cases of brain tumors compared with an expected 24. However, the state investigation failed to find a spatial distribution linking the brain cancer cluster to carcinogenic heavy metals known to contaminate the National Fireworks Company site. In 1980 the federal EPA found barrels of toxic waste dumped on the property containing arsenic, chloroform, trichloroethylene and vinyl chloride.

According to the March 31, 2021 Patriot Ledger, “The National Fireworks Co. began developing, testing and manufacturing civil fireworks and military munitions at the site near the Hanson town line in 1907 and disposed of chemicals there until it closed in 1971…A variety of heavy metals were found in the soil and water around the former factory, setting off a decades long effort to clean up an area where contamination measured at twice the threshold for earning Superfund status.”

How the Atomic Age Left Us a Half-Century of Radioactive Waste. Photo of the Atomic Energy Commissions plutonium production plant at Hanford, Washington, Circa 1955. Photo: Evans/Getty Imags

Decades of population research has established a decisive link between central nervous system cancer clusters and nuclear waste sites. An international journal review of cancers among residents downwind of the Hanford Plutonium Production site in southeastern Washington State detected cases greater than expected for the population. In 1943 Hanford produced the “Fat Man” plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 and the Operation Crossroads bombs detonated in the Bikini Atoll in July of 1946.

Declassified National Archives Photo — A technician applies sealant and putty to the crevices of a “Fat Man” plutonium bomb.

The former Hanford plutonium plant is the largest nuclear clean-up site in the western hemisphere costing taxpayers a billion dollars a year. A community based health survey of 800 residents conducted between 1944 and 1995 revealed high incidences of all cancers including brain and thyroid.

“There were greater than expected numbers of central nervous system cancers and the authors argue the greater than expected numbers cannot be accounted for by selection bias alone.” [https://www.researchgate.net/publication/8907783_Cancers_among_Residents_Downwind_of_the_Hanford_Washington_Plutonium_Production_Site]

Map of Superfund density adjusted cancer clusters in the US identifies northern California cluster.

A spatial study of the location of Superfund sites and associated cancer risks addressed three main research questions about geographic locations selected for listing by the U.S. EPA as having extreme toxic chemical contamination. The questions posed are:

  1. Are there geographical areas where the number or density of Superfund sites is significantly higher than in the rest of the US?
  2. Is there an association between cancer incidence and the number or density of Superfund sites?
  3. Do counties with Superfund sites have higher minority populations than the rest of the USA.

The answer to all three questions is a resounding yes! Using the advanced disease surveillance software program SaTScan capable of identifying locations and risks of spatial clusters in cancer rates and Superfund site density the authors conclude:

“We find that geographic areas with Superfund sites tend to have elevated cancer risk, and also elevated proportions of minority populations.” Raid Amin, Arlene Nelson & Shannon McDougall — Tandfonline.com, Statistics and Public Policy

Working in a Wasteland

In a 2018 photo published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Tony Montoya — President of the Police Officers Association- displays a surgical scar vertically aligned along the posterior region of his skull and upper cervical spine. It is the approach most often used by neurosurgeons requiring emergency access to compressing tumors of the brainstem. Montoya served as a K-9 officer in Building 606 from 2005–2008 located on the southeast shoreline of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard at the border of Parcel E and Parcel D. Building 606 is the site of a cluster of brain, lung, thyroid and canine cancers.

Pathways of Exposure: Yosemite Slough — Photo by Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, March 20, 2020

A 32 year old physical therapist grew up on Yosemite Avenue adjacent to Yosemite Slough — a muddy channel of water that carries sediment from the shipyards contaminated Parcel E-2 shoreline west towards 3rd street. She developed right sided weakness and imbalance that caused her to repeatedly sprain her ankle underwent MRI scan that detected a brain stem glioma. After undergoing 30 rounds of RT in three weeks her symptoms worsened due to swelling in her brain but ultimately she moved on with her life and her career. She requested a urinary toxic exposure screening that detected a “slough” of cancer causing heavy metals in elevated concentrations including the Group 1 carcinogens nickel and cadmium.

Urinary toxic exposure screening conducted by HP Biomonitoring on a 32 year old woman diagnosed with a brainstem glioma who grew up adjacent to Yosemite Slough and currently resides on the Hunters Point hilltop north of the shipyard Crisp Road main entry to the Parcel E-2 shoreline. Multiple heavy metals are detected in elevated concentrations including the Group 1 Carcinogens cadmium and nickel. Aluminum Gadolinium, Copper, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum and Vanadium and detected in concentrations far exceeding the normal population.
Children’s playground located in the 1000 block of Palou at the Crisp Road entry to the federal Superfund site a within 500 feet of the radiation contaminated Parcel E-2 shoreline. A Youtube video created by the author and photographer captures Proposition 65 Dust Barrier Violations and breaches in the fence line separating deep soil excavations can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/YFujuHHPPRY
The Bishop of a church in the 1100 block of Oakdale located 500 feet west of the fence line separating the federal Superfund site from the church built by his father was diagnosed with two brain tumors different brain tumors -including a brainstem glioma. A Youtube video captures Proposition 65 fence line violations at: https://youtu.be/o4dA5pzfwUU
Elected member of the Hunters Point Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board and 20 year homeowner and artist located in the 1200 block of Oakdale west of the Crisp Road entry to the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard has undergone brain surgery twice for meningiomas — a type of brain tumor linked to ionizing radiation exposure. Her urinary screening detects cesium, gadolinium, nickel, rubidium, thallium, manganese, strontium, and vanadium above reference range for the normal population.
Danger, Caution, Road Closed! Appropriate backdrops for a photo of Saul Bloom captured on September 11, 2013 by Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Saul Bloom was the founding Executive Director of Arc Ecology — a non-profit organization that focused on environmental quality, public education and technical assistance to Restoration Advisory Boards overseeing military base reuse. Bloom authored Shame About the Shipyard, an article published in the April 2002 issue Verdict — National Coalition of Concerned Legal Professionals — that documents his personal exposure to heavy metal contamination at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard Drydock 4 where Astoria Metals was sited until October 18, 2000, when a U.S District Court granted an injunction sought by Arc Ecology and San Francisco Waterkeepers to halt further use of Dry Dock 4 …”until the Navy’s tenant, Astoria Metals, can demonstrate they can operate the facility safely.”

Saul Bloom was eulogized on July, 17, 2016 after losing his two year long battle with a malignant brain cancer. He died at age 62 “in the loving embrace of his family and friends.”

“Yesterday my brother, Saul Bloom, passed away. He died as result of a 2 year long battle with brain cancer…He lost. I wonder if anybody actually wins this battle. Regardless of length of survival it is a bitch of a disease that leaves only a trail of hurt.”
San Francisco Doctor Researches Impact of Toxic Dump on Hunters Point. Youtube: https://youtu.be/RF-f2nKONzA



Ahimsa Porter Sumchai MD

Founder, Director, PI - HP Biomonitoring/ Founding Chair- Radiological Committee Hunters Point Shipyard RAB 2001, Former Attending MD VA Toxic Registry & SFDPH