Cleansing Toxins in the Sunset District – Richmond Review/Sunset Beacon
Clean up the toxics in the Sunset District!
By Adam Michels
I can’t use my downstairs shower. This week I bought a tub stopper and some waterproof tape to block off the drain because I had toxic gases seeping into my house through my downstairs shower drain.
The poisonous gas is perchlorethylene, also known as tetrachlorethylene, PERC or PCE. In its liquid form, it was used as a dry cleaning solution by cleaners around the world, including the one that operated at 2511 Irving St. near my home. The PCE got into the sandy soil of Sunset, possibly from leaking sewer lines, and it spread through the neighborhood, including under my house.
As it spreads, it also slowly evaporates, where it rises to the surface. If there is a house on the surface, it will seep into the house through gaps and cracks in the foundation. This is how these invisible vapors entered my home. The highest concentration was found around this drain, but levels exceeding the California Department of Toxic Substances (DTSC) residential standard were found throughout the home.
PCE may be invisible, but exposure to it and its breakdown products (such as trichlorethylene or TCE) has been linked to several forms of cancer, as well as diseases of the central nervous system, kidneys, liver and lungs, and birth defects. At least five of my neighbors have cancer and one has Parkinson’s disease, which is associated with TCE exposure.
I don’t know how long gas has been in my house, but my wife and I have been living here since 2000, two years after we got married. We raised two children here. It’s scary to think that we’ve all been breathing in an extremely dangerous carcinogen for so many years.
It’s not like PCE contamination is a new concept. In 1995, San Francisco Department of the Environment director Jared Blumenfeld told the San Francisco Chronicle that “the most toxic thing that happens in the city is dry cleaning.…And the special thing about dry cleaning is that it takes place next to residential housing – it’s a combination of toxic chemicals known to cause cancer and proximity to where people live.”
The plume of toxic PCE in my neighborhood does not go away unless it is removed by extracting the vapors from the ground, essentially by digging pits and vacuuming up the PCE with an industrial-sized vacuum cleaner. A scientist said mining in my neighborhood could cost $500,000.
I guess I should be grateful we found out we were poisoned. If not for the recent sale of the land at 2550 Irving Street from the Police Credit Union (PCU) to the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TDNC), we might never have known. Before selling the land, routine tests were carried out. That’s when I discovered the PCE was at dangerous levels in the ground below 2550 Irving, the parking lot across the street at 2513 Irving, and even the ground outside my front door.
I wondered why the TNDC would want to pay $10 million for contaminated land and then build a 90-unit apartment building on top of it. Turns out they didn’t have a problem with the toxins as long as the DTSC didn’t have a problem. DTSC told TNDC they could just slip an $800,000 vapor barrier with an expected lifespan of 20 years under the new building, and everything would be cool. Note that this is 60% more money than it would cost to extract the PCE and permanently solve the problem. They would spend more money and leave the toxic PCE in the ground at 100 times the safe level. Who knows how far he would travel the neighborhood and how many more houses he would invade? Who cares what will happen to the residents of the building in a few decades?
DTSC told me that TNDC would only be responsible for protecting new residents in the new building and not residents already living in the surrounding neighborhood. The PCU told me we were just lucky they paid for the tests. Somehow, I didn’t feel so lucky.
Every party seems to acknowledge that we are breathing dangerous levels of PCE vapor, but they all shrug their shoulders and tell us that they have no responsibility to do anything about it. The PCU moved most of its staff out of its building soon after testing was completed and isolated most of the building from the lobby. Obviously, the site is too toxic for their own employees to work there… but apparently not for low-income families to live there.
Meanwhile, DTSC has issued a cleanup order for the site, based on the tests conducted for the sale of 2550 Irvings to TNDC (you can see them in order), after placing the site on the list of State of California’s 500 Most Toxic Sites. . PCU does nothing about the command. In a recent Zoom meeting, where the PCU announced they were planning a new eight-unit apartment building in the parking lot of 2513 Irving, they explicitly declined to discuss toxic soil and pointed the finger at DTSC. TNDC also disclaims any responsibility for the cleanup of PCE on its site.
I am confused here. Is it really okay to ignore one of the most toxic sites in the state and build two new apartment buildings on the contaminated soil when we know what the outcome will be?
And so, I end up with a bathtub stopper and duct tape as my first line of defense. This is what the experts advised me to do, in addition to opening the windows. Following their advice left us wearing jackets indoors, paying an extremely high PG&E bill, and still being cold. And what will I do next summer, when the raging (now normal) wildfires leave me with a choice between breathing toxic PCE or toxic wildfire smoke? I thought about moving, but how could I sell a contaminated house?
I know affordable housing is desperately needed in San Francisco, and I support it, even if it means housing is almost literally in my backyard. But is it too much to ask that we remove toxins from the soil before we start? I would like to be safe to take off my jacket, close my windows and take a shower without being poisoned. And I suspect my new neighbors would want the same.