People who fish San Francisco Bay for food are at risk from dioxin and PCBs, according to a new report, but just how to eliminate the toxic chemicals remains an issue.
The report was released Wednesday by Communities for a Better Environment, which said the chemicals are 10 times more concentrated in those fish than in the general food supply. Some 75 percent of those at risk are "people of color," the report added.
Dioxin, the CBE report says, accumulates in fat and can cause cancer, birth defects and a variety of other ailments, and those who eat fish caught in the bay on a daily basis are exposed to "as much as 30 times more dioxin than the already-dangerous general population level," the report warned.
Dioxin, a byproduct of industrial chlorine use, is released in liquid, gas and solid wastes and products, then builds up in soil and sediment or lands in the water, where it can concentrate in the food chain, the report said.
The four top dioxin polluters named in the report were the Chevron Corp. oil refinery in Richmond; the Integrated Environmental Services medical waste incinerators in Oakland; and Tosco Corp. oil refineries in Avon and Rodeo.
There were 25 other companies or sites named as lesser sources.
CBE says the problem can be solved if chlorine can be eliminated from the processes in effect at the plants listed in the report, but company representatives say the amount of dioxin they release is already so small that in many cases it can't be detected.
"The primary sources of dioxin in the Bay Area are on-road mobile sources; diesel trucks, buses, delivery trucks, cars. The second largest source is off-road mobile sources, like tractors, generators and ships," said Robert Reed, a spokesman for NorCal Waste Systems Inc., the parent of IES. Fifteen percent comes from home fireplaces, according to a 1996 report by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
"Medical waste incineration is a source of small amounts of dioxin," he said. "We spent $ 5 million in the last three years upgrading the facility and installing the best emissions control equipment commercially available. Our emissions are a small percent of what is allowed by law."
Marielle Boortz, a Chevron spokeswoman, said dioxin is produced in very small quantities, and the company "is in legal compliance with all legal limits.
"We are required to test for dioxin, and for the last few years there have been no detectable emissions," she said.
But CBE says no amount of dioxin is acceptable - and it can be eliminated. So why is it still around?
"Some of the reasons are political," said Karen Susag, a community organizer with CBE. "Agencies are in dioxin denial. They don't want to deal with the problem, they say it's too expensive or will take too much time."
"It can be eliminated at the source, and the report lays out a plan. The only solution is zero exposure. It's not something you can regulate, because there is no acceptable level."
Will Bruhns, a senior engineer with the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, agreed with Reed, saying a recent study showed that most of the dioxin is airborne and produced by diesel engines.
He said the worst problem found by the study was Tosco's Avon refinery, "they are under orders and it's being dealt with."
As far as health effects, he said a study the board did in 1994, in which they studied the tissues of eight commonly caught sport fish in the bay, found six of 150 chemicals they tested for were over federal screening levels - and dioxin was one of them.
Based on two of the chemicals, neither of which was dioxin, the state issued a health advisory, warning people to eat no more than two meals a month based on fish caught in the bay. The limit was one meal a month for children and pregnant women.
To make sure that the warning reached all groups, signs were posted at major fishing piers in six languages. Is the warning being followed? Nobody knows.
CBE's report calls for eliminating the problem at the source, by making sure that chlorine is not used in any way in the industrial process. And they want an independent investigation to make sure that options to stop dioxin pollution are identified.
It also suggests "rounding up" all PCBs still in old transformers and other electrical equipment, finding alternatives to chlorine in refinery operations and eliminating polyvinyl chloride, a type of plastic, in hospital operations.
"It's difficult to solve the problem," Susag said, "if the companies don't want to be part of the solution."
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