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Pollution Kills

Bayview-Hunters Point Meets Harvard

By Betsey Culp

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that by signing these Accords, we commit our cities to moving vital issues of sustainability to the top of our legislative agendas. Through implementation of the Urban Environmental Accords, the signatory cities aim to realize the right to a clean, healthy and safe environment for all of our society, including for the most vulnerable groups such as minorities, women, children, and the elderly.

Green Cities Declaration (Draft)

The people in Bayview-Hunters Point have known it all along, because they see it every day: the air you breathe can make you sick. Dr. Ahimsa Sumchai has pressed the point repeatedly, in the pages of the Bayview and elsewhere:

An above average incidence of childhood asthma has been documented in BVHP ranging from 17 to 25 percent, and some research evidence exists to support a high incidence of childhood cancers linked to toxic exposure like lymphoma and leukemia.

In addition to the shipyard, the PG&E Hunters Point Power Plant is a documented source of airborne pollutants as is the Southeast Sewerage Treatment Plant and numerous private industrial plants in the region.

Recently, the Third Street Light Rail has emerged as a source of airborne particulates that can damage heart and lung tissue and provoke heart and asthma attacks.

The seventh and eighth graders who attended a Literacy for Environmental Justice workshop this winter understand the value of clean air:

One reason it’s important is because little kids can get asthma and they can also get cancer from the pollution in the air and environment. The other reason is the power plant. Smoke coming from the power plant is one reason why kids in Bayview get sick so much.

Even the Chronicle has acknowledged the problem:

This corner of San Francisco is home to almost all the city's polluting industries, including the main power and sewage treatment plants and the now-closed Hunters Point Naval Shipyard — a Superfund cleanup site where the military once experimented with radiation.

Studies show that residents of the area face elevated rates of asthma, diabetes and cervical and breast cancer.

San Francisco is one of the greenest cities in the country. But it has a little patch of noxious weeds tucked away in the southeast corner that just won’t go away, no matter how loudly the residents complain. In fact, nobody pays much attention to what they say.

Maybe, just maybe, they haven’t been howling up the right tree.

Few observers will deny that environmental problems are making people in Bayview-Hunters Point sick. And their plight creates poignant human-interest stories for the local papers. But in the hard-headed world of modern government, where the bottom line counts big, that argument apparently doesn’t add up to much. A country where, according to the U.S. Census, 45 million people lack health insurance, obviously doesn’t place too much importance on keeping its population from getting sick.

An article in the May-June issue of Harvard Magazine called “Clearing the Air,” suggests another approach that might be more successful. The article sets the scene:

In the early 1990s, epidemiological research at the [Harvard School of Public Health] began to suggest that fine particles from combustion sources such as power plants and vehicles (known as PM2.5, or particles that are 2.5 microns or smaller in diameter) are more dangerous to human health than large particles or typical outdoor levels of pollutant gases such as ozone, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide. Researchers comparing air quality in six cities across the United States were stunned when their data showed that people living in cities with the dirtiest air died on average two years earlier than residents of cities with the cleanest air. The difference in death rates was linked to elevated levels of fine-particle pollution.

People are dying from power-plant and vehicle pollution.

In 1993 the researchers published their findings in the New England Journal of Medicine. The article was quoted everywhere. And a year later the American Lung Association sued the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to revise its air quality standards in light of new research, as the law requires it to do.

The American Lung Association won, and the EPA re-set its standards.

And then… let’s let author Jonathan Shaw describe what happened next:

The EPA is required to set air-quality standards in the interests of human health without regard for the cost. But separately, the agency is also required to produce a cost-benefit analysis of its regulations. Economists who calculate costs and benefits value a prevented asthma attack at hundreds of dollars, but a life lost at millions of dollars. [Emphasis added.] When the Six Cities and ACS studies linked fine particles to increased death rates, [researcher Douglas] Dockery says, “The cost-benefit analysis flipped to show a huge benefit from controlling particle emissions.” The EPA issued a new standard in 1997. “Suddenly, we were talking about putting real controls on power plants that would have significant monetary costs,” says Dockery.

Suddenly the stakes were raised. And the industries that would have to foot the fill protested.

In the same mode that tries to make evolution just one theory among many and tries to discredit the evidence for global warming, the industries tried to challenge the science behind the pollution study. Dockery continues:

Industry mobilized to attack the scientific basis for the standards….Their strategy was to identify “key studies” used as the basis for the proposed standards. If they could discredit those studies, the scientific basis for the standards would be undermined.

The Harvard scientists fought back. They asked the Health Effects Institute to re-do the study and decide whether it was accurate.  In 2000 the HEI, “a public-private partnership set up by the EPA and industry in 1980 to resolve disputes of this kind,” announced its support for the original findings.

In March 2005 the Bush administration failed to get its proposed Clean Skies Act out of committee. Without its watered-down provisions, the purity of our air is still under the protection of the 1990 Clean Air Act, which takes its mission to

protect and enhance the quality of the Nation's air resources so as to promote the public health and welfare and the productive capacity of its population.

But according to the Harvard article, despite the promises found in the Clean Air Act, the revised standard of 1997 has never been enforced. And because it has not, the “productive capacity” of the United States is being damaged, as its citizens meet early deaths in places like Bayview-Hunters Point.

The NAACP has successfully sued school districts for providing inferior education to people of color. Surely, it could find a way to sue the EPA for shortening their lives.