Radiation threat on Treasure Island, report says via SF Gate

Despite six years of Navy cleanup and San Francisco city government reassurances that Treasure Island is safe, children living there might be at risk of radiation poisoning, a newly released state health department memo concludes.

Earlier this year, California Department of Public Health workers discovered radioactive shards buried in lawns near apartment buildings on the island’s western side. One small octagonal object was so radioactive that holding onto it for an hour could cause burns, hair loss and ulceration, according to the memo.

That area of the former military base is now home to a playground, landscaped recreation areas and apartments. The Navy is slated to turn over the land to the city, which plans to build an 8,000-unit high-rise development there.

Local officials overseeing the handover distributed a letter in March to the island’s 2,000 residents in an attempt to assuage fears over contamination the Navy left behind when it closed the base in 1997. The officials said low-level radioactivity in the soil near their apartments did not pose a health threat.

The letter did not mention the dangerously radioactive shards that had been found, or the fact that state regulators feared there could be more.

In a strongly worded internal memo, written in June and updated in September, state health officials warned that there was no guarantee the area was safe and said findings indicated there still might be dangerous radioactive waste in the ground where children could find it.

“Further evaluation should be made of the probability of a member of the public, especially critical members of the population (for example, children) picking up a radioactive fragment and being exposed,” said the internal memo, obtained this month by the Center for Investigative Reporting through a state Public Records Act request.


In preparation for cleanup, a 2006 Navy analysis suggested there was little to indicate the former base was contaminated with significant radioactive waste.

But in 2008, a radioactive waste cleanup worker alerted regulators to what he considered an imminent risk to children posed by pieces of radium-226 turning up in the soil. According to an e-mail that state radiation specialist Kent Prendergast sent to colleagues on June 25, 2008, contract worker Robert McLean warned that radioactive fragments he’d found “could represent a hazard to children.”

“The more people that investigate, the more they find out that the Navy just covered up,” McLean said last week. He believes his earlier concerns largely were ignored.


Officials have no way of knowing how many shards remain on the island. But as of 2011, a total of 575 had been unearthed, according to internal health department e-mails.

The new memo again says tests have not been thorough enough to evaluate whether the apartment areas are safe.

Besides the warning about radioactive shards, the health department memo says soil just under the grass contained low concentrations of radium, making it possible that decorative shrubs in the area might have absorbed radioactive material.

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