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Gene Defects for Neighbors of Toxic Site

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Gene Defects for Neighbors of Toxic Site

Study finds aberrations in chromosomes among Daly City project residents

Angelica Pence, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2000
2000 San Francisco Chronicle

Most residents tested at a San Mateo County housing project built on contaminated soil show an ``abnormal'' number of genetic defects, a federal health study shows.

The analysis, obtained by The Chronicle, does not directly link the defective genes to the many ailments of residents at Midway Village in Daly City. But it has helped reopen a decade-old dispute about whether authorities have appropriately handled the cleanup there.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for one, is urging state regulators to retest the project, which was constructed next to a Superfund site in 1976, for carcinogens.

Keith Takata, a director of Superfunds for the EPA, said the state failed to retest soil samples after a cleanup effort more than six years ago.

``We're recommending a much more intense (soil) sampling effort,'' he said. ``The state did some, but it doesn't appear that they completed what they set out to do.''

The federal study was undertaken after a decade of prodding by residents, who have long believed that the soil, air and water in their neighborhood are spawning a host of diseases, ranging from mysterious rashes and nosebleeds to infertility, memory loss and cancer.

``What more do they want?'' asked Lula Bishop, a longtime Midway Village resident. ``We're sick. They can see that we're sick. We don't need any study to tell us that.''

In 1990, state officials and San Mateo County first notified residents that the ground beneath Midway Village was laden with toxic polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, known as PNAs, which have been linked to cancer and other maladies.

Uneasy about their exposure, 58 of the project's 400 tenants asked the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to analyze their DNA tests, which they had paid for themselves.


The study detected a high number of chromosome aberrations in 32 of 34 residents ages 18 and under. Similarly, 19 of the 24 adults showed abnormal levels of irregularities in their DNA. Medical studies have shown that such genetic defects can make people more prone to cancer and other illnesses.

``Those numbers sound high to me,'' said Dr. Gina Solomon, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. ``It makes me wonder what these people are exposed to or why they came up with those findings.''

Without commenting directly on the federal report, UCSF epidemiologist John Wiencke noted that a group of recent scientific studies, including one in Finland, suggest that people who have more chromosome aberrations are more prone to some cancers.

Dated June 21, 1999, the report does not specify what constitutes normal, above normal or abnormal levels of defective genes.

The study went on to cast doubt that Midway Village, or any residential area, would have high enough levels of PNA exposure that would result in ``genetic toxicity.'' The authors did not return repeated calls from The Chronicle.

Solomon, who read the report at The Chronicle's request, said that while the report does not ``prove a link between the waste site and residents' illnesses, (the) findings demand further investigation.''

``This is not something that can be ignored or dismissed as mere chance,'' she said. ``We have a population out there with abnormal chromosomes and we have no idea why. At the very least, it requires investigating more about these people's environment.''


Midway Village was built on soil taken from a former PG&E gas plant that left chemical residues in the ground.

However, scientists say man- made or natural chemicals capable of altering genetic material are common in the environment -- one of several factors that may have skewed the report. PNAs, which are byproducts of fuel, can also be found in tobacco smoke and some foods.

During the past decade, residents have sued PG&E and government agencies over the contamination. But various courts have thrown out the suits on the grounds that residents could not link the chemical exposure to their maladies -- a common finding in suits claiming environmentally caused illnesses.

``That is what is so maddening,'' said Bradley Angel, executive director for Greenaction, a health and environmental watchdog group in San Francisco that is working with Midway Village residents. ``These chemicals make people sick and they (the government) know that.''

The findings are ``further indication of why we believe there is a very serious health problem in Midway Village and why (tenants) should be relocated now,'' he said.

State regulators and PG&E officials have long said that living at the site poses no health risks.

``The work we've done out there has not indicated to us that residents need to be relocated,'' said Ron Baker, spokesman for the state Environmental Protection Agency's Department of Toxic Substances Control, which has spearheaded the Midway Village cleanup.

``We have not found any evidence to indicate that anyone's health has been impacted in any way.''

Nevertheless, Baker says, the state agency plans to collect additional soil samples in the next two months from Midway Village, including 50 locations in neighboring Bayshore Park.

Representatives from both the state and the EPA have agreed to meet with Midway Village residents sometime in February, much to the surprise of longtime tenants.

In the meantime, volunteers with Greenaction and the Midway Residents for Environmental Justice are going door to door asking residents to document their ailments. The group also is scouting independent, nongovernmental health groups to help draft a report about their findings.


Midway Village's contamination dates to the turn of the century, when PG&E operated a gas plant in the Daly City neighborhood. The plant, which turned oil into gas for lighting, heating and cooking, was shut down in 1913 and was dismantled three years later, PG&E records show.

During World War II, the Pentagon took control of 50 acres of wetlands in Daly City -- including the PG&E property -- to put up military housing. PNA-laden waste from the old gas plant was used as fill for the ground on which the military housing was built.

Federal officials turned over the property to PG&E in the 1950s and deeded Midway Village to San Mateo County. In turn, the county rebuilt the housing project in 1976 with federal money. Utility officials said they uncovered contaminated soil in the area in 1980.

Four years later, the area was tacked on to the state Superfund list of the most contaminated industrial sites in California.

It was not until 1990 that state officials and San Mateo County first notified residents that the ground beneath Midway Village was laden with PNAs. The EPA lists seven types of the chemicals found at Midway Village as ``probable human carcinogens.''

PNAs are found in soil in most urban areas at less than 10 parts per million. In 1990, toxins experts recorded levels as high as 170 parts per million in the surface soil at Midway Village, with concentrations four times as high below the surface of the complex.

In 1993, more than 250 current and former residents of Midway Village joined in class-action lawsuits in federal court claiming negligence on the part of the federal government and the U.S. Navy. The suits were eventually dismissed, as was a later case against the county Housing Authority and PG&E. However, some of the plaintiffs accepted from $2,000 to $4,500 as part of the 1997 settlement offer.

Others refused to accept what they deemed an insult.

``They underestimate us,'' said 68- year-old Basilia de Guzman, among the tenants who had their DNA tested. ``We're staying here and fighting until we get what we deserve.''


Key events in the history of Midway Village:

--1906 to 1913: PG&E's gas manufacturing plant in Daly City leaves tar-like residues that contain potentially hazardous chemicals.

--1944: During World War II, Pentagon builds Midway Village housing complex next to site of shut-down gas plant. Government contractors use gas plant residues to fill the marshland where complex is built.

--1955: Federal government turns over Midway Village to San Mateo County for public housing and schools.

--1976: With federal aid, San Mateo County rebuilds Midway Village complex. No tests are conducted on soil.

--1980: PG&E finds contaminated soil at its Martin Service Center -- the former site of the gas plant -- and hauls some of it away.

--1984: PG&E's Martin Service Center is placed on the Superfund list of most contaminated industrial sites in California.

--1989, 1990: PG&E tests reveal contaminated soils around housing units of Midway Village.

--June 1990: PG&E informs San Mateo County supervisors and health and environmental officials that Midway Village has a problem.

--September 1990: County and PG&E hold public meeting to tell residents of Midway Village of contaminated soil.

--November 1990: County hires contractors to remove some of the soil at Midway Village and to ``cap'' other areas with concrete patios.

--July 1991: About 55 residents file lawsuit in state court against San Mateo County, the county Housing Authority and PG&E.

--December 1991: Cal-EPA orders federal government, San Mateo County and PG&E to come up with a plan to clean up Midway Village.

--February 1993: About 250 residents of Midway Village file $125 million class-action suit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco against the federal government.

--July 1993: Federal government grants $1.8 million to county for ``capping'' more soil at Midway Village.

--April 1994: Federal judge dismisses $125 million lawsuit.

--August 1997: San Mateo County Superior Court judge dismisses suit against PG&E and San Mateo County.

--June 1999: The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry releases study showing high levels of genetic abnormalities among Midway Village residents.

Related article: Daly City Residents Blast PG&E Over Toxic Ground

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