Is Hunters Point sick? Meet the doctor screening residents for toxics in S.F.’s biggest development battle
Ahimsa Porter Sumchai is a physician, but her Bayview clinic looks more like a detective’s office.
Color-coded maps of the nearby Hunters Point Naval Shipyard are the key to her investigation into the lives and deaths of people like her dad, George Donald Porter. The former longshoreman died of lung disease in 1992. His death, his family alleged in a lawsuit that was later settled, stemmed from exposure to asbestos at the old shipyard.
Today, Sumchai uses brightly colored pins to map other potentially hazardous chemicals that she detects in people who live and work near the shipyard: yellow for uranium, green for cesium, white for strontium and so on. A second map charts illnesses reported by some of her volunteers, from breast cancer to lung disease to brain tumors.
“One of the things that you see immediately is that we’ve got a brain cancer problem here,” Sumchai said, tracing the pins she’s placed just west of the shipyard.
After decades of mistrust surrounding a multibillion-dollar redevelopment battle at Hunters Point, Sumchai’s goal is to connect the dots between disease and chemicals still lurking at one of America’s former hubs for radiological research. But the doctor has struggled to find an audience for her dire warnings of a “cancer cluster” near the shipyard.
Despite Sumchai’s frequent letters to public officials and her tests being submitted as evidence in a federal class-action lawsuit brought by 9,000 Bayview-Hunters Point residents, officials question her approach and insist that they’ve already taken steps to protect the public.
Federal, state and local officials acknowledge that parts of the shipyard were contaminated during the Cold War, when ships were brought there after atomic-bomb tests. But they’ve long denied any link between local health concerns and the shipyard, where developers have spent years working with the city and the Navy on a plan to clean the site and build 12,000 new homes, millions of square feet of office space and hundreds of acres of parks.
“The city is committed to ensuring that it will not accept the transfer of any property until it is deemed safe and ready for development,” the San Francisco Department of Public Health told The Chronicle in a statement.
The Navy and others have already spent decades and hundreds of millions of dollars trying to address contamination and testing the soil, air and water around Hunters Point. It was in 2019 — just as a cleanup scandal erupted at the shipyard — when Sumchai launched her own effort to test the people living and working within a mile of the site.
Her nonprofit Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program has since screened more than five dozen people ages 12 to 80 using low-cost urine toxicology tests, often finding high levels of what regulators monitoring the shipyard call “ contaminants of concern.” Though the tests are preliminary and lack the precision to distinguish whether most material is radioactive, Sumchai sees the work as part of a national reckoning over what public officials owe the country’s most polluted communities, from Flint, Mich., to Louisiana’s cancer alley.
“We’re on a collision course,” Sumchai said. “They’re not going to be able to ignore the work.”
Struggling to have her voice heard is nothing new for Sumchai. She didn’t grow up in Hunters Point, but became a poet and champion gymnast at her family’s home in the Sunnydale housing projects. Hers was one of thousands of Black families drawn to work during World War II at Bay Area military hubs, which offered economic mobility, but also segregated housing and dangerous work conditions.
Sumchai traces her work today to 1966, when she was in high school and the National Guard was deployed to the Bayview after a white police officer fatally shot a Black teenager. Days of violence ensued, and she “was galvanized,” becoming part of a generation of young people to join the city’s civil rights struggle.
Since then, she’s forged a career as an emergency medicine physician, interviewed veterans of chemical warfare and moved into private practice in the booming wellness industry. But her work at Hunters Point is unique in the “Cassandra syndrome” it fosters, warning of a disaster that many in power insist isn’t real. She has no choice, she said, but to have faith that others will soon acknowledge what she’s long been trying to tell them.
“The cavalry is coming,” Sumchai said. “I see it.”
In medical school at UCSF, Sumchai remembers classmates laughing when she said she wanted to be a neurosurgeon. After graduation in 1981, she carved out a niche in high-pressure emergency rooms and hospital helicopter transports, where her 5-foot frame allowed her to be more agile in confined spaces. Within a decade, she was consulting for the San Francisco Giants on stadium emergencies.
By the late 1990s, Sumchai was an emergency physician for the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, where she interviewed survivors of World War II and the Vietnam and Gulf wars, which she considers crucial to her mission today in Hunters Point.
“I liked emergency medicine and the lifestyle,” she said. “You can get hit and slammed and stressed out — you know, beat up and insulted and spit on — and then just go home.”
Eventually, though, the work took a toll, as did the dissolution of her marriage and a spate of family illnesses. Sumchai was forced to surrender her medical license in 2001 after a mental health crisis hindered her ability to treat patients, California medical board records show. Her physician’s license was reinstated in 2005 after therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder.
The burnout is familiar to fellow activist Raymond Tompkins, a retired chemistry teacher and environmental advocate who met Sumchai in the Black Student Union at San Francisco State. The pair later worked together on a citizens’ advisory board critical of shipyard development plans before the Navy dissolved it in 2009 due to “ irreconcilable issues.” Throughout her career, Tompkins said, Sumchai has been unyielding in her commitment to residents of marginalized areas.
“She hadn’t sold her soul for a dollar,” Tompkins said, “but continued to look after the well-being of the community.”
As Sumchai reinvented herself, opening a new private sports medicine practice, settling into a home near Lake Merced and becoming an avid breeder of Pomeranian dogs, a prophetic chain of events was also playing out at the shipyard.
The Navy stopped using the site in 1974, ushering in rising unemployment, crime and the beginning of an exodus of Black homeowners from Bayview-Hunters Point. It wasn’t until the early 2000s when the city’s biggest redevelopment effort in a century started to solidify.
Since much of the former shipyard remains classified as a federal Superfund site, it had to be tested and cleaned before people could live there. In 2004, regulators declared the hilltop portion of the shipyard to be clean, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and the San Francisco Department of Public Health have all maintained that it is safe for residents. Hundreds of people live in recently developed housing there; some benefited from a $6.3 million settlement over a cleanup controversy that hurt home values.
Bayview residents like Kamillah Ealom, who manages a community air-monitoring program for advocacy group Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, say safety assurances are undercut by discoveries including a radioactive dial found near new condos in 2018 and radioactive material recently identified in another area slated for development. In late October, the Navy announced that it had found radioactive strontium in levels “above the remedial goals” on Parcel G of the shipyard.
“We lived in this toxic bubble,” said Ealom, who believes family health issues like her lifelong asthma and the loss of a 2-year-old cousin to brain cancer could be connected to living in Bayview-Hunters Point. “Knowledge is power, and a lot of us don’t even know what we’re surrounded in.”
Though Hunters Point is home to hundreds of industrial businesses that present pollution concerns, scandal over the Navy cleanup has deepened skepticism about the shipyard and fueled a barrage of lawsuits. The U.S. Department of Justice and a group of whistle-blowers are suing cleanup contractor Tetra Tech EC for fraud. The Justice Department, in a civil action, alleged that the firm cut corners and falsified radiation tests; the Navy decided that Tetra Tech EC’s data was suspect and areas of the shipyard must be retested. Tetra Tech EC has denied any wrongdoing in the ongoing case. In 2018, two former cleanup supervisors whom the company has called “rogue employees” were sentenced to eight months in prison.
Past meets present
Today, at her Third Street clinic just down the block from where police clashed with Bayview protesters in the ’60s, Sumchai is still trying to find her place in a changing city.
She seems like a patient science professor when she explains her own tests, easily rattling off long lists of chemicals and potential ill effects. But Sumchai grows incredulous when she talks about what she sees as a pattern of dismissiveness from city officials, like when San Francisco public health officials wrote in a 2019 report that there was “not an excess number of cases” of cancer in Bayview-Hunters Point.
What about the early 1990s, Sumchai asks, when another city study found “elevated rates” of breast cancer in the area? Or a 31% jump in lung cancer reported in 2019, which officials said at the time could potentially be attributed to factors like smoking and diet? Then there are Sumchai’s own maps pinpointing other cancers reported by residents and nearby workers, including a group of police officers who sued over health concerns.
“We really have done them a big favor by doing all of their homework,” Sumchai said. “All they have to do is call these people and verify it. “
When Mesha Irizarry went to the doctor in July, the longtime community activist was worried that she had COVID-19. She was shocked when doctors diagnosed her with a rare form of leukemia and told her she had only months to live.
Irizarry, 74, first moved to Bayview-Hunters Point in 1997 and now lives in a senior apartment complex near the shipyard. She used to smoke, but said she’s also vegan and has no known family history of cancer. Irizarry, who runs the Idriss Stelley Foundation in the name of her son, who was fatally shot by San Francisco police in 2001, is using some of the time she has left for screenings with her old friend Sumchai. Some elements detected in the test like cadmium, nickel and platinum can be found in cigarette smoke, but Irizarry wonders whether manganese, vanadium and other potentially hazardous substances could be related to the shipyard.
She’s frustrated that her other doctors and city officials aren’t doing more to follow up.
“I know that I’m a goner. I know that leukemia is winning the battle,” Irizarry said. “But it makes me mad how dangerous this place is.”
Critics contend that Sumchai’s tests, which are conducted by commercial lab Genova Diagnostics, have a key limitation. They can detect elevated levels of chemicals, but not whether a chemical exists in a radioactive state.
That’s a challenge because several contaminants identified at the shipyard are naturally occurring and can exist in stable, relatively harmless forms. But in the case of elements like strontium, they can also exist in a radioactive form that can cause leukemia, anemia and other health issues in high levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genova Diagnostics did not respond to a request for comment, but the company’s website notes that its laboratories are licensed by both the federal government and California regulators.
Determining whether an element is radioactive can require expensive precision testing that Sumchai and allied doctors say is unfair to expect a small nonprofit to obtain. But the California Department of Public Health said in a statement that it “could not definitively conclude the source of these elements” in Sumchai’s tests without more details. The agency added that it “has not been directly provided any test results,” though Sumchai provided The Chronicle with copies of emails and letters addressed to state Public Health Officer Tomás Aragón detailing some test results.
The Navy Base Realignment & Closure Office did not answer specific questions about Sumchai’s work but said in a statement that it “takes proactive steps, including dust control measures and technologies that monitor air quality.”
For Sumchai, trying to add her own data to the conversation has been a slow process. She relies on a $70,000 grant she received in 2019 from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to cover the monthly rent at her clinic, and most of the people being tested pay about $130 out of pocket for the tests. Finding more people to take part in the testing has been a challenge because of the cost, and the anxiety that Sumchai said can ensue.
“Who wants to know that they’ve got radiation in their body?” she said.
Still, the doctor isn’t alone in scrutinizing the shipyard cleanup. In August 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency rejected the Navy’s calculations for long-term cancer risk near the shipyard, saying some assumptions “may result in an underestimate of the risk.”
In the meantime, Sumchai is also working to expand her testing efforts. She’s applying for additional grant funding and has a new ally in Dr. James Dahlgren, a fellow UCSF grad who testified in the PG&E water contamination case made famous by the 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich.”
Dahlgren heard about Sumchai’s biomonitoring work over the summer and started helping with testing on weekends. There are several challenges, he said, including the relatively small number of volunteers, a lack of military-grade testing for radioactive materials and a need for more exhaustive participant medical histories.
“What she has already is incredible,” Dahlgren said. “We need to get a more scientifically supported picture of the health of the population.”
Recent research published in the journal Nature has found that living near a Superfund site can decrease average life expectancy by more than one year in poor and demographically diverse communities. But the field of environmental toxicology is still evolving quickly, as Dahlgren has learned when his own research has been challenged in past trials.
Sumchai is optimistic about recent national developments like a new White House Environmental Justice Task Force, and a pending settlement in the class-action lawsuit between Bayview-Hunters Point residents and shipyard developers Lennar and Five Point Holdings. Ultimately, she hopes future settlements with the others involved in the cleanup efforts will lead to a registry of toxic exposure like the one created after the Flint water crisis in Michigan, which could provide compensation or relocation funds for impacted residents.
But the doctor is also wary of how ugly the battle could get. In October, the state medical board filed a complaint questioning whether she adequately evaluated patients in a side job selling dermatological creams online. Sumchai acknowledged doing some freelance telemedicine work, but cast the complaint as an attempt to smear her.
Whatever happens, Sumchai said, she’ll be at her clinic asking questions that others have long ignored.
“It would be impossible,” she said, “for me to just walk away.”
San Francisco Chronicle staff photographer Yalonda M. James contributed to this report.
Originally published at https://www.sfchronicle.com on January 5, 2022.