As Treasure Island residents express alarm about a radioactive waste investigation that’s expanded into their yards, and even living rooms, San Francisco health officials and a local nonprofit are stepping in to separate fact from speculation.
Since 2003, Navy contractors have searched for and removed low-level radioactive waste at the former Treasure Island Naval Station – the underground legacy of an atomic warfare school and a warship repair facility.
But recently, the Navy has had to broaden its cleanup efforts after state health officials alleged Navy contractors misidentified and mishandled potential radioactive waste sites.
The island’s 2,000 residents learned of the possibly botched radioactive waste cleanup only after it was disclosed by The Bay Citizen. Some have responded with concerns about their own health, worried that illnesses such as cancer might have been caused by radiation left over from military devices or ships.
About 50 residents attended a meeting on the island Tuesday night where two dozen officials from the city, Navy and state addressed their questions. Frank Romero said that after seven years living on the island, he’d found out Friday that he had cancer in his chest.
“I never had it before I got here,” said Romero, who said he is veteran of the war in Iraq. “Something’s happening here.”
In 2007, Kathryn Lundgren said she recalls seeing men step out of an unmarked black van and don white radiation protective suits: “booties, goggles, everything,” Lundgren said. They said they had permission from her landlord to come into her house and test for radioactive material.
“I was kind of creeped out, and my kids were obviously frightened because they look scary,” Lundgren recalled.
Since then, Lundgren said, her husband has suffered heart failure and her mother has developed welts. She believes the ailments might be traced to chemical contamination in the soil. She also fears she can’t completely rule out adverse health effects from radiation.
Lundgren and her neighbors two weeks ago founded an organization they named The Treasure Island Health Network to press for more information about the Navy’s ongoing cleanup of radioactive and chemical waste.
Officials with the Navy and the State Department of Toxic Substances Control assured residents Tuesday that they would have suffered no health effects from radioactive material.
California Department of Public Health radiation specialist Steve Woods offered a slightly different message, however, saying that even though findings so far do not suggest a current public health risk, more studies are warranted.
Up to now, no study of residents on the island has been conducted to determine whether any have health problems that could be related to the island’s military past. San Francisco health officer Tomás Aragón said his office may step into the breach by collecting available health information about Treasure Island residents.
Aragón warned, however, that it would be difficult to design a study to determine whether there is a link between low-level radioactive material on Treasure Island and public health risks.
For one thing, he said, available Navy cleanup data does not indicate that people living on Treasure Island have been exposed to significant radiation. Even if there were significant radiation sources near homes, the base only opened to the public during the mid-1990s, meaning current residents haven’t lived there for the decades thought to be necessary for their bodies to absorb dangerous doses of radiation.
“We’re all going to die. And the major causes of death are cancer and heart disease,” Aragón said. “When you have an environmental health concern, it’s normal to say, ‘Oh, cancers in my neighborhood must be an environmental issue.’ ”
The nonprofit Arc Ecology, meanwhile, plans to ask a consultant to examine the Navy’s cleanup records to determine whether mistakes by private contractors hired by the Navy could have endangered public health.
At Tuesday’s meeting, island resident Vicki Jones complained about being exposed to dust from open trucks leaving the island filled with dirt and debris.
“I can tell you it’s dusty out there,” Jones said. “My asthma is taking off, and I can’t sleep. I’m talking to people who have asthma who have never had it in their life.”
Arc Ecology Executive Director Saul Bloom suggested additional measures to prevent the spread of potentially radioactive dust from fenced-in cleanup sites, such as having a centralized location where trucks would be hosed off and where their tarp covers would be secured.
“We have no reason to believe the Navy is hiding the ball regarding the cleanup out there,” he said. “We just need to do our own due diligence before we can tell people that we know for sure it’s safe.”