Treasure Island resident Kathryn Lundgren has been concerned for several years about the effects of contamination at the former Navy base on her family’s health.
But when a group of Navy contractors dug a small radioactive fragment out of her front yard last month, Lundgren became angry and scared. The fragment, a metal disc the size of a dime, was detected during radiation scans conducted in November but wasn’t dug up until the end of January. The Navy didn’t give a reason for the delay.
During that time, Lundgren attended two meetings where city, state and federal officials repeatedly assured residents that the island is safe and that the scans were merely precautionary measures. It wasn’t the first time radioactive fragments have been found near her home – another two were dug up last spring.
The disc found in January is just the latest in a string of radiological revelations by state and federal officials in charge of cleaning up the former military base, which will eventually be transferred to the city of San Francisco and redeveloped. The Navy believes the radiation is left over from the decontamination of radioactive ships and from dials, gauges and deck markers left behind from a time when the miliary used radioactive paint to make things glow in the dark.
Residents and others familiar with the contamination issues at Treasure Island say the discoveries – combined with other toxics known to pollute the island’s soil since before residents were moved there in 1999 – raise questions about whether San Francisco should have moved people there in the first place, before the island was clean, and whether it should have allowed them to live there during the cleanup.
While government agencies have repeatedly determined that the radiation and other toxics don’t pose a health risk, residents say they have not been kept up to date on the cleanup and don’t trust the safety declarations.
In a city where the safety of fake grass playfields became a major source of debate and a city agency is in part dedicated to helping consumers steer away from toxic products, it’s surprising that there’s not more alarm on the part of city officials, Lundgren said. She and many residents say their families, and kids in particular, are suffering from health issues they cannot explain, and worry they will develop medical problems later in life.
All of Lundgren’s children – ages 13, 16 and 17 – have developed chronic health conditions in recent years, she said, including lupus-like symptoms in her middle daughter, Praise. Her husband, Eric, went into heart failure in 2006, she said, after attempting to put down Astroturf in their backyard to keep the dust from getting inside.
Lundgren said authorities keep assuring residents they are taking every precaution to ensure residents’ safety, but do not come clean about new discoveries until they are forced to by observant residents or media reports.
“When do I get to use precaution for my family? When am I going to be informed enough so that I can be proactive for my kids?” she asked. “I just think they are not going to tell us the truth – they are absolutely going to stick to their story – and every time we catch them on something they are either deadly silent or want to evade the question entirely.”
From the beginning, lease agreements have barred residents from digging in their yards or altering the landscaping because of the arsenic, pesticides, lead, PCBs and other chemicals on a long list of known toxic materials left over in the dirt from the Navy’s trash pit under portions of the housing area. But some residents said that prohibition wasn’t made clear to them, and public health experts say it’s ridiculous to expect children not to play in the dirt. “You can tell people not to dig in the garden, but kids dig – they do a lot of hand-to-mouth activity,” said Rachel Morello-Frosch, director of UC Berkeley’s public health program.
Beck said the city believes it has been clear about those restrictions but wants to “start doing more” ongoing notifications on the issue. Lundgren, for example, is worried that her kids may have dug up something potentially dangerous when they were younger. Praise, her 16-year-old daughter, recently told her that she and her two siblings used to save items they found in the dirt near their house. The family has been searching their home to make sure they aren’t still around.
Morello-Frosch also raised questions about having vulnerable people, such as children, living near cleanup work, since soil and dust can easily move around “and remediation activity itself could be leading to short-term exposure.”
Continue reading at Is Treasure Island toxic? Residents’ worries grow