The Bay Area’s Air Quality Management District chief on Wednesday distributed air filters and promised longer term relief to residents of a pandemic homeless shelter in San Francisco’s Bayview that’s surrounded by hazardous dust-generating concrete-making operations.
The visit followed a report by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit last month, exposing the site — a makeshift campground with 120 trailers and recreational vehicles established on Pier 94 last year as an emergency shelter—as posing a potential health risk to the residents.
A city health department map shows the area, dotted with concrete batch plants, has elevated levels of microscopic 2.5-micron dust particles that have been tied to asthma, heart attacks and lung cancer.
In handing out the air filters on Wednesday, air management chief Jack Broadbent promised the district will act to reduce the dust from nearby facilities in a matter of months.
“We’re actively working to take enforcement action,” Broadbent said, gesturing toward the massive piles of concrete-making materials next door to the shelter.
“Normally those piles that are right behind us, can, in a very dry situation, release a lot of dust in this area,” Broadbent said. “And that gets in your lungs and it leads to a whole host of health impacts.”
He said that beyond regulatory actions against specific operators, the district is in the process of making rules that would limit dust. One way is installing physical barriers to block dust transmission, he said. Another, he said, is to limit the height of the piles themselves.
But for now, Dewayne Isaacs, one of the residents who got a new filter at the site on Wednesday, says he gets hit with the dust every time he opens his trailer door.
“Just look at the mountain of dust over there,” said Isaacs, who has lived at the shelter site for two months. “When the wind blows, it hits the air. We inhale it. We don’t know if we can get cancer or know if we’ll have asthma.”
Yet, he became emotional as he thanked the city and its non-profit agencies for providing not only housing, but meals and services to keep residents out of the downward spiral of life on the street.
“We just know people are making the effort to save lives,” Isaacs said, his eyes welling with tears.
But critics, like environmental activist Ray Tompkins, say the air district needs to do more than provide air filters and vague promises if it is going to protect residents from the hazards of the industrial dust over the long term.
“Once you open the door, you are letting in more of the dirty air,” the retired chemistry teacher said. A permanent solution must involve strict monitoring to assure operators regularly douse both the piles of raw materials and access roads with water to keep down the fine particles," he said.
But for Gwendolyn Westbrook, whose non-profit United Council of Human Services operates the shelter, the filters represent some progress in assuring the health and safety of residents.
“I’m just praying that these filters,” she said, will capture what escapes from the air filtration systems already built into in the units on the site. Westbrook said she is thankful that authorities intervened after NBC Bay Area brought the dust risk to light last month.
“I think after the story you guys gave -- and knowing how San Franciscans stand up and help each other -- I wasn’t surprised,’’ Westbrook said. “I would have been more surprised if they didn’t.”