SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Persistent as a pitbull: that’s what some colleagues call this week’s Jefferson Award Winner, who is a doctor doing potentially pioneering work in San Francisco’s Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood.
Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchia is testing dozens of people for exposure to 35 potentially toxic metals and radiation.
She runs the Hunters Point Bio-Monitoring Program, a first-of-its-kind, independent, community-wide program at a federal Superfund site that screens those who’ve lived at least a year in a one-mile radius of the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.
“It’s one of the most contaminated properties in the United States,” Dr. Sumchai said.
She co-founded the bio-monitoring program in 2019 as a volunteer. Now, the program receives a $70,000 grant from the Lucile Packard Foundation.
Sumchia says her tests show people living in the Hunter’s point neighborhood of San Francisco have elevated levels of arsenic and other elements.
“I’ve been reviewing the effects of arsenic and it’s absolutely mind-blowing,” Dr. Sumchai said. “That’s associated with multiple tumors and we have two screenings as part of the South Basin cluster of women who have had multiple tumors.”
Dr. Sumchai has also discovered several residents with high levels of vanadium, like Nikcole Cunningham and her son Immanuel Lowery.
Their vanadium exposure could explain their nosebleeds and migraines.
“I remember going to class and I wouldn’t be able to focus, and I was like, ‘I have to go to my room. I’m sorry,'” said Lowery. “‘Cause it was like hurting my head and I couldn’t function. I couldn’t read.”
The Navy has maintained its cleanup of the toxic dumping ground has been safe, and it’s remained skeptical of any connection between neighbors’ health problems, and toxic and radioactive elements in the old shipyard.
But Dr. Sumchai is determined to continue her research, especially as the area is slated for major city redevelopment projects.
She’s an inspiration to the bio-monitoring project’s co-founder Dr. Ramona Tascoe.
“She does not require others to pave the way for her,” Dr. Tascoe said. “If she sees an obstacle, she moves it out of the way, she jumps over it, she gets around it. “
Dr. Sumchai has served as an attending physician at the Persian Gulf Agent Orange toxic registry for the Palo Alto Veterans Administration.
She would like to establish a similar toxic registry for Hunters Point.
“It’s obvious to me that it’s important. It’s obvious to me that it is potentially groundbreaking,” Dr. Sumchai said.
LEARN MORE: Jefferson Awards for Public Service
The Stanford-trained medical doctor grew up in Hunter’s Point, and her father, a shipyard longshoreman, died of asbestos poisoning.
She says she’s made it her life’s work to study the health effects in the neighborhood.
So for researching the health of people living near the Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard Superfund site, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai.