Nuclear, chemical and asbestos wastes at Hunters Point and elsewhere make cancer No. 1 killer
by Janette D. Sherman, M.D.
“Cancer Tops Heart Disease as No. 1 Killer,” screamed the article, but it was buried on page A-12 of the Jan. 20, 2005, Washington Post. Seems that for the first time in our history, all of us younger than 85 will die of cancer before any other cause.
This is awful! Why aren’t we up in arms; marching in the streets, yelling at Congress and the nation’s “health” agencies? Is it because we are inundated with ads on television touting the latest treatments, showing a smiling women who took “Drug X” so that she could go to her daughter’s wedding or the smiling man playing with his grandchild after taking “Drug Y”?
What’s wrong with us? Why aren’t we outraged? Why are we accepting this cancer epidemic as something natural?
We don’t know all of the causes of cancer, but we know enough of them to do something about them. Why aren’t we? When we see changes in cancer incidence, either for the worse or for the better, why don’t we seize on that information and do something with it?
In 1986 women in San Francisco and Philadelphia had comparable death rates for breast cancer, which stood at 140 per 100,000. By 1995 the death rate for women in Philadelphia was 160 per 100,000 compared to 100 per 100,000 for women in San Francisco.
One plausible explanation is that the Rancho Seco nuclear reactor in Sacramento was closed permanently in 1989, thus ending nuclear isotope contamination of a major source of drinking water and food supply for the Bay area. While the breast cancer rate for much of San Francisco declined, the cancer rate for Hunters Point residents did not decline.
Several reasons come to mind. One, Hunters Point was a major ship building area with tons of asbestos, toxic chemicals and nuclear contamination from ships used in the nuclear tests conducted in the Pacific Ocean’s Marshall Islands. Located at Hunters Point as well are the PG&E power plant and a sewage treatment plant, each polluting the community.
The high rainfall and fog that gives the city its character helps to precipitate pollutants that don’t fall on drier areas.
I worked at Hunters Point in the 1950s and saw first hand the dust and asbestos particles kicked up by the ship repair operations. My work was at the U.S. Naval Radiation Defense Laboratory, located at Hunters Point and operational from 1946 until 1969.
The “Rad Lab” did research on the effects of nuclear radiation and thermal burns, burns being one of the most damaging and unspoken effects of an atomic bomb. It was grizzly work involving hundreds of rat experiments.
That experience made me aware of the extreme hazards of nuclear radiation and increased my desire to go to medical school. In the 1980s I returned to San Francisco as a physician to examine workers who had been exposed to asbestos at the Hunters Point Shipyard.
Asbestos causes not only lung cancer and mesothelioma, but also cancers of the gastrointestinal tract, a suffocating fibrotic lung disease and malignancies associated with immune dysfunction, including leukemia, lymphoma, sarcoma and myeloma.
Mesothelioma is a rare cancer, but in the course of two days I examined three former Hunters Point Shipyard workers with the disease, more than most physicians see in a lifetime of practice.
Subsequently, I testified at trial on the workers’ behalf. I cited an article in a British Medical Journal upon which I relied for my opinion that asbestos causes cancer. The defense attorney challenged me saying that no one in the U.S. could be expected to keep up with science published overseas. When I pointed out that the journal had “New York Public Library – Harlem Branch” stamped in the upper corner, he asked no more questions.
Linked to the Hunters Point asbestos pollution is the small town of Libby, Montana. In June 2000 I met with people from that small town of 3,000 residents. Some 55-plus asbestos victims and their families came to my talk.
Several people remarked that they found it significant that although the meeting had been well publicized, not one person from the medical community, the town government, nor anyone from EPA or ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry), then working in Libby, came to the meeting.
At the meeting, W.R. Grace employee Les Skramstad was among the most articulate as to the impact of asbestos upon himself, his family and the community and how the information had been covered up, even in 2000.
I stayed that night in Libby with a woman whose husband had died of asbestosis. We were joined the next morning by two neighbors whose husbands had died from asbestos related cancers.
Troubling too were the multiple people who reported that doctors hired by the company kept vital medical information from the workers, thus workers continued to be exposed to asbestos after there was clear evidence of ongoing harm.
For William M. Corcoran, indicted vice president of public and regulatory affairs for W.R. Grace Co., to say, “The science did not evolve quickly enough” is either wishful thinking or the ultimate in spin. Asbestos has been known to be hazardous since at least 1898, and by 1935 the asbestos link to cancer was established in the scientific literature.
There were even more scientific papers linking asbestos to fibrotic lung disease, a particular hazard for shipyard workers. Asbestos was used in large quantities for fireproofing on ships. Pipes were “lagged” (wrapped) with asbestos paper and asbestos “mud” was packed into crevices. It was very dusty work as was evident at Hunters Point.
The U.S. EPA is addressing the Libby asbestos problem, although years late. The EPA “knew more than 15 years ago that the asbestos fibers were killing people in the small Montana town of Libby but ‘dropped the ball,’” EPA toxicologist Christopher Weis said.
“The agency’s headquarters was aware of the situation but never passed the information along to the regional office in Denver” (Washington Post, Jan. 1, 2000, page A-5).
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, himself a cancer patient, introduced a bill to create a $140 billion trust fund for those with asbestos related diseases that were occupationally exposed. Such a trust fund was discussed prior to 1982 by members of the advisory group to EPA’s Toxic Substance Control Act, of which I was a member, and was rejected then as being inadequate to cover the many people made ill by asbestos.
Asbestos contaminates not only the workers who mine, manufacture, install and demolish asbestos-containing products, but also the many people who process and use the products, as well as residents who live in proximity to these operations, which includes Hunters Point.
Unfortunately, the bill before the U.S. Congress does not include those exposed to asbestos in their communities, even if they live next to a facility where asbestos products are manufactured or used, such as a shipyard. Staff members of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, cosponsor of the bill, say that non-occupationally exposed persons can file under the catchall provision of the bill for “exceptional medical claims.”
But it is not clear if the administrator of the Trust Fund or the judiciary will consider those claims.
Even those exposed occupationally to asbestos have to document their exposure and then fulfill specific medical criteria, which is difficult if companies have gone out of business or declared bankruptcy.
The only people included in the asbestos bill specifically for environmental exposure are those from Libby, Montana, who were exposed to “take home” asbestos. While this may be justice for Libby asbestos victims, it lets W.R. Grace and EPA off the hook and does nothing for others exposed elsewhere to environmentally spread asbestos such as the people of Hunters Point.
What will it take for us to express our outrage when our next family member, friend or neighbor is diagnosed with cancer? What will it take to stop polluting and clean up our communities?
How much more asbestos, PCBs, solvents, nuclear wastes, power plant emissions will we tolerate before we do something? Clearly, governmental agencies are failing to protect the health of the public.
The level of illness in Hunters Point and Libby, Montana, as well as other communities is not just a public health problem, it is a civil rights problem. How much longer will we stand for it?
Why do we allow our federal government to spend $200 trillion to wage war in Iraq yet grant Halliburton/ Kellogg Brown and Root $72 million in bonuses and not clean up the nuclear, chemical and asbestos wastes at Hunters Point and other communities polluted by past activities. How did we allow cancer to become the No. 1 killer without noticing it?
Janette D. Sherman, M.D., is an internist and toxicologist and the author of “Life’s Delicate Balance: Causes and Prevention of Breast Cancer,” which is available through her website, www.janettesherman.com or by emailing Dr. Sherman at email@example.com.
www.sfbayview.com and by permission of Dr. Sherman.
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