Commentary: Clean Up the Toxins in the Sunset District

Clean Up the Toxics in the Sunset District!

By Adam Michels

I can’t use my downstairs shower. This week I bought a bathtub stopper and some waterproof duct tape to block the drain, because I had poisonous gas seeping into my house through my downstairs shower drain.

The poisonous gas is perchloroethylene, also known as tetrachloroethylene, PERC, or PCE. In its liquid form, it was used as a drycleaning solution by cleaners all over, including the one that used to operate at 2511 Irving St. near my house. The PCE got into the sandy Sunset soil, possibly from leaks in the sewer pipes, and it has 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 at the surface, it will seep into the house through foundation gaps and cracks. This is how those invisible vapors entered my home. The highest concentration was found around that drain, but levels exceeding the California Department of Toxic Substances’s (DTSC’s) residential standard were found throughout the house.

PCE may be invisible, but exposure to it and its decomposition products (such as trichloroethylene, or TCE) is 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 the gas has been entering my home, but my wife and I have lived here since 2000, two years after we got married. We raised two children here. It’s frightening to think we’ve all been breathing an extremely dangerous carcinogen for so many years.

It’s not as if PCE contamination is a new concept. Back in 1995, San Francisco’s Director of the Department of the Environment, Jared Blumenfeld, told the San Francisco Chronicle that “The most toxic thing happening in the city is dry cleaning.… And the unique thing about dry cleaning is that it takes place alongside residential housing — it’s a combination of toxic chemicals known to cause cancer and a proximity to where people live.” 

The toxic PCE plume in my neighborhood is not going away unless it is removed through soil vapor extraction, essentially digging wells and sucking out the PCE with an industrial-sized vacuum cleaner. One scientist said extraction in my neighborhood could cost $500,000.

I guess I should be grateful that we found out we are being poisoned. If it weren’t for the recent sale of the land at 2550 Irving St. from the Police Credit Union (PCU) to the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TDNC), we may never have known. Before selling the land, some routine tests were done. It was then that I found out that PCE was found in dangerous levels in the soil under 2550 Irving, the parking lot across the street at 2513 Irving, and even the soil in front of my front door.

I wondered why the TNDC would want to pay $10 million for a contaminated piece of land and then build a 90-unit apartment building on top of it. 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 a 20-year expected lifespan 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 soil at 100 times the safe level. Who knows how far in the neighborhood it would travel and how many more homes it would invade? Who cares what happens to the building’s residents in another couple of decades? 

DTSC told me that TNDC would be responsible only for protecting the new residents in the new building and not the residents already living in the surrounding neighborhood. PCU told me that we were just lucky that they paid for the testing. Somehow, I didn’t feel so lucky.

Each party seems to acknowledge that we are breathing dangerous levels of PCE vapor, but they all shrug their shoulders and tell us they have no responsibility to do anything about it. PCU moved most of their staff out of their building shortly after the tests were conducted, and sealed most of the building off from the lobby area. Clearly, the site is too toxic for their own employees to work in … but apparently not for low-income families to live in.

 Meanwhile, DTSC issued an order to clean the site up, based on the tests conducted for the 2550 Irving sale to TNDC (you can see them in the order), after placing the site on the state’s list of the 500 most toxic sites in California. PCU is doing nothing about the order. At a recent Zoom meeting, where PCU announced they were planning a new eight-unit apartment building on the parking lot at 2513 Irving, they explicitly refused to discuss the toxic soil, and pointed the finger at DTSC. TNDC similarly accepts no responsibility to clean the PCE from their site.
I’m confused hereI. Is it really fine to ignore one of the most toxic sites in the state, and to build two new apartment buildings on top of the contaminated soil when we know what the outcome will be?

And so, I’m left with a bathtub stopper and duct tape as my own first line of defense. This is what the experts advised me to do, along with opening the windows. Taking their advice has left us wearing jackets indoors, paying an extremely high PG&E bill, and still feeling cold. And what will I do next summer, when the (now normal) raging wildfires leave me choosing between breathing toxic PCE or toxic wildfire smoke? I’ve thought about moving, but how could I possibly sell a contaminated house?

I know affordable housing is desperately needed in San Francisco, and I support it, even if that means the housing is almost literally in my backyard. But is it too much to ask that we take the toxics out of the soil before breaking ground? I would love 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.

Adam Michels has been a resident of the Sunset District for more than 20 years. He is a member of the Mid-Sunset Neighborhood Association.

5 replies »

  1. This essay makes a powerful statement about how those in power seem to be able to avoid unpleasant or costly responsibility. Thank you for sharing it with all of the community.
    Flo Kimmerling


  2. So why shouldn’t the cost of cleanup come from Martha Jackson and Liang/Cheong Family Trust? That’s who the Cal. EPA order was directed to.


  3. There were 2 dry cleaners in this area, one at 2511 Irving and one was on the lot of the currently proposed 2550 Irving development by TNDC, until recently owned by the Police Credit Union.

    Based on all of the testing and results, it looks like both dry cleaners are responsible for the PCE contamination in the area and the responsible parties of both lots have to pay for the cleanup and any mitigation of the affected residences.

    The DTSC order directed to Martha Jackson and Liang/Cheong Family Trust was for the south side 2511 Irving, former Albrite Cleaners.

    However, there’s also contamination plume on the North side at 2550 Irving which is affecting nearby homes and has to be addressed by the responsible parties of that lot which is TNDC and Police Credit Union. The issue is that both TNDC and PCU don’t want to do it. Both have completely washed their hands off the problem, which is shameful because one(PCU) is still operating in the neighborhood a block away and the other


  4. one is touting about how they will care for the families in the neighborhood while planning to house them in a building on top of toxic soil and staying silent on any cleanup or mitigation for existing residents like Adam and myself whose families are breathing toxic air in their home.


  5. Mitigation requires excavation and removal of contaminated soil and disposal of the contaminated soil at an approved toxic waste disposal sites, such sites do exist within the state. The removed soil should then be replaced with clean soil, such material should be readily available at any public works site, such as road widening or development where large quantities of suitable soil could be sourced.


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