Public Comment

Body Burden Study for Northwest Berkeley

By L A Wood
Thursday October 29, 2009 - 09:28:00 AM

The ongoing debate about toxic emissions in northwest Berkeley and their health impacts may be closer to resolve with the advent of a project that will collect blood samples during the next several months. This community effort is funded by the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Foundation to provide a better understanding of the toxic impacts from the area’s poor air quality. The principal focus of this study centers on those who live, work, and attend schools and childcare facilities downwind from Pacific Steel Casting, a local foundry and Berkeley’s biggest air polluter. 

This area, often referred to as the Oceanview district, has more than a twenty-five year history of noxious odors and unanswered questions about its air quality. For years, the City of Berkeley, its zoning board, and even our regional air regulator, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, have dismissed the idea that there could be any health impacts associated with the foundry’s emissions. This posture has been bolstered by their lack of effective offsite monitoring. 

Two years ago, the emissions dilemma took a turn for the better when Global Community Monitor, an internationally renowned environmental justice group, began working within the affected Berkeley community. The body burden project, designed by GCM to test for evidence of accumulated metals in blood, is the newest in a series of community-directed monitoring efforts. The results should very interesting indeed. 

Why Body Burden Testing? 

The idea for conducting a bio-monitoring project in northwest Berkeley arose out of another GCM sponsored emissions investigation in Oceanview during 2007. A small team of community volunteers placed air monitors on two dozen rooftops near the stacks of PSC. Although the air discharges at the foundry are known to be laden with a number of chemicals such as formaldehyde, the 2007 monitoring project chose to focus on six toxic metals, all known to be emitted from the foundry’s operations. 

This air monitoring data was then processed through an EPA certified lab, but was still summarily dismissed by the foundry even though the equipment and sampling protocol were both approved in advance by BAAQMD. In fact, it was the air district’s grant that made the seven-month project possible. The agency also signed off on the results. However, soon after the final report was released, the subsequent political pressure found BAAQMD wanting to back peddle away from the community’s results. 

The air monitoring data certainly raised many questions as to whether the results represented chronic, or acute, exposure levels. However, the monitoring report clearly revealed that downwinders within half a mile of the foundry are being exposed regularly to elevated levels of at least two metals: nickel and manganese. 

Both of these metals have been identified as toxic air contaminants by the California Air Resources Board. We also know from CARB these airborne metals in the Oceanview district are almost exclusively—99 percent—emitted by the foundry. 

What is the degree of downwind exposure? This is one of several questions that the new bio-monitoring project hopes to answer. 


Making a Difference 

Body burden assessments have been used for many years as important medical diagnostic tools to understand chemical exposures. Some chemicals accumulate in the body and can be measured in many ways including through the examination of blood, hair, and urine. It is also recognized that children and older citizens are more sensitive to such exposures. For children, their age is as significant as the duration of exposure. 

What makes the Berkeley body burden study unique is its focus on a narrow geographic test area and that only two metals in the blood samples will be screened. A comprehensive screening of the population will ultimately provide a clearer picture of actual community exposure to the airborne nickel and manganese. This is why we need to test as many people as possible in the targeted area. 

Of course, all participants will be respected with regard to their privacy and will be guaranteed absolute anonymity. The project will include a doctor of record and a review panel. The Berkeley study, which is connected with the East Bay Body Burden Project, will run concurrently with a similar investigation in West Oakland. Commonweal, a nonprofit health and environmental research institute, has been named as one of the consultants. 

The Community’s Right to Know 

You can help our West Berkeley and Albany communities to better understand the cancer risks and non-cancer hazards for those who may have been exposed to these industrial emissions. There will be no charge for those participants the project screens for inclusion. 

Again, we encourage those of you who live, work and send your children to schools and childcare facilities in the Oceanview district to participate in this study. The district’s bio-monitoring area extends approximately from the waterfront east to San Pablo Avenue, and from Virginia Street north to the Berkeley/Albany border, including the UC Village student housing. 

Global Community Monitor is sponsoring an informational meeting on Berkeley’s study along with an introduction of the East Bay Body Burden Project. It will be held Wed., Nov. 4 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the David Brower Center, located at 2150 Allston Way, in the Tamalpais Room on the 2nd Floor. 

Those interested in participating in this important community investigation are encouraged to come to this meeting, although attendance is not a requirement for being included in the study. 

You can also visit the website to learn more about the Berkeley project and how you and your children can participate with the assurance of complete privacy. 



L A Wood is a Berkeley resident.