What’s in the Air?

California Chemical Exposure

I created this website following a personal experience which enlightened me to how horrifically polluted the SF Bay Area is and how little we generally know about indoor air quality or how it can affect our health. I hope gathering some of this information in one place will be helpful to others in learning about their own environments. [This section was migrated from the site originally at whatsintheair.org]

Table of Contents

California Chemical Exposure Research Tools

Chemical Release Sites
Unfortunately, chemical release site information is maintained in numerous databases and websites. The data occasionally overlaps, but often does not. If you’re interested about a specific location, I’d encourage you to search for it in all the sites as some are likely to have information that others do not. 

​Understanding Vapor Intrusion & Chemical Exposure 

Vapor intrusion occurs when there is a migration of vapor-forming chemicals from any subsurface source into an overlying building. [EPA]

VOCs & Health

[Short-term] “health effects [of VOCs] may include: loss of coordination; conjunctival [eye] irritation; nose and throat discomfort; headache; allergic skin reaction; dyspnea [shortness of breath]; nausea; emesis [vomiting]; epistaxis [nosebleeds]; fatigue; dizziness; visual disorders; memory impairment.” [link]

Depending on the specific chemical, there could be other issues impacting the nervous system, heart, skin, etc. Check ATSDR & OSHA if you know the specific chemical. For example, Trichloroethylene (TCE) exposure is known to cause standard VOC symptoms and also depression of the central nervous system, low blood pressure, heart damage, blood circulation issues, hallucinations, diarrhea, abdominal pain, fainting, seizures, cardiac arrhythmias, hearing and vision issues, rashes, chemical burns, menstrual irregularities, and autoimmune diseases (like Lupus) among other health issues. [link]

​Cancer risk depends on the specific chemical(s) and exposure, among other factors. 

Government Resources:

Academia & Medicine Resources:

  • “The presence of Superfund sites as a determinant of life expectancy in the United States, [Naturelink
  • “Life Expectancy Lower Near Superfund Sites, Lower Still for Those with Low Incomes.” [UHlink]  
  • “Sick Building Syndrome,” [BMJlink]  
  • “Superfund Cleanups and Infant Health,” [NBERlink]  
  • “Human Health Effects of Trichloroethylene,” [NIHlink
  • “Cancer in the Semiconductor Industry,” [EH: link]

VOCs & Health, News 

  • “Living near a US toxic waste site could shave a year off your life, study finds,” [The Guardianlink]  
  • “Superfund sites tied to birth defects, [SF Gate: link
  • “Toxic waste sites may cause health problems for millions,” [Science News: link
  • “Chemical Exposure Linked to Billions in Health Care Costs,” [National Geographiclink]  
  • “Rates of Parkinson’s disease are exploding. A common chemical may be to blame” (TCE), [The Guardian: link

​Silicon Valley/North SF & Breast Cancer

“We identified four areas of concern where invasive breast cancer rates were 10-20% higher than the state average from 2000-2008.” Including: Silicon Valley (San Mateo, Santa Clara, & Alameda counties) + North San Francisco Bay Area (Marin, Solano, etc). Tracking California (link

  • “Bay Area breast cancer clusters seen,” [SF Gate, 2014: link
  • “Breast Cancer Mapping Project” Landing Page, [Tracking Californialink
  • “Breast Cancer Mapping Project” Report, [Tracking California, 2012: link] ​
  • “Elevated rates of invasive breast cancer in Bay Area cities,” [Cal Health Report, 2014: link]
  • “New Mapping Finds More Breast Cancer ‘Areas of Concern,’” [KQEDlink

​Chemicals & Women’s Health

“Research has shown that in at least some situations, women react differently than men when exposed to the same toxic substances. For example, several studies have shown that when women and men are exposed to the same toxic substances in the workplace (in a building that causes Sick Building Syndrome, say), women consistently report having more symptoms. A number of physiological differences might explain this. Because women have, on average, 10 percent more body fat than men, they are able to store more fat-soluble toxins. Women may be more vulnerable to toxic exposures because they have a lower body weight. Finally, hormonal differences may also affect the way a person’s body responds to chemicals.” (link)

  • “Sick Building Syndrome and Gender Bias: Imperiling Women’s Health,” [T&F Online: link
  • “Research lags on the health risks of women’s exposure to chemicals,” [The Guardianlink
  • “Reproductive Health & the Workplace,” [CDClink]
  • “Why do Women Suffer from Sick Building Syndrome more often than Men? – Subjective Higher Sensitivity versus Objective Causes,” [Wileylink
  • “Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers,” [Amazonlink]
  • “New report: Gender inequalities exacerbated by exposure to hazardous chemicals,” [IPENlink]
  • “Women and Chemicals,” [HEJ Supportlink]  
  • “Women and chemicals – the impact of hazardous chemicals on women,” [WECF: link]  
  • “Women & Chemicals,” [IPENlink]
  • “Exploring chemical exposures for California’s women workers,” [CBCRPlink
  • “Women’s Occupations & Risk from Chemicals,” [CA DPHlink]  ​
  • “Women’s Voices for the Earth,” [link

SF Bay Area Chemical Exposure Doctors: UCSF Occupational and Environmental Medicine Clinic

  • “The UCSF Occupational and Environmental Medicine Clinic cares for patients and families with injuries, illnesses, harmful exposures or other health concerns related to workplace, community or home. Our doctors diagnose and treat work-related injury and illness under workers’ compensation programs, and can perform in-depth expert consultation to assess disability or ability to return to work. In addition, we are familiar with the latest studies on chemical exposure and its health effects. We can arrange for workplace visits and testing, and we will use the findings to make recommendations on reducing or eliminating hazards.”
  • https://www.ucsfhealth.org/clinics/occupational-and-environmental-medicine-clinic

Radiation Exposure

If you live in Hunter’s Point or Treasure Island (or other radioactive areas in the Bay Area), this is a topic you probably want to look into further.

  • “Radiation and Your Health,” [CDClink
  • “Brain cancer biomonitoring in Bayview Hunters Point,” Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, MD, [SF Bay Viewlink
  • “An insider tour of the Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program,” [SF Bay View: link]  
  • “Former Treasure Island residents report radiation and chemical poisoning during Feb. 8 SF Supervisors’ hearing,” [SF Bay View: link]

Understanding Superfunds (CERCLA) & Chemical Release Sites

EPA’s Superfund program is responsible for cleaning up some of the nation’s most contaminated land and responding to environmental emergencies, oil spills and natural disasters. [EPA]

Chemical Release Sites & Climate Change

Books & Movies about Toxic Waste

Air Testing

“Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects.” [link

Personal VOC Monitors

(These devices let you know if you should ask questions, but don’t really give you any answers. I also recommend learning about VOCs before using them as normal activities like cooking or cleaning can make these monitors spike, but that’s probably expected.)

Chemical Testing

Air Filters

Learn about Indoor Air

Government Oversight

Local Agencies: You probably have city and/or county public health departments and maybe even environmental agencies. You can search your local city and county websites to try to find these.

California EPA


California Department Of Toxic Substances Control

“The mission of DTSC is to protect California’s people and environment from harmful effects of toxic substances by restoring contaminated resources, enforcing hazardous waste laws, reducing hazardous waste generation, and encouraging the manufacture of chemically safer products.” (includes deed restricted sites, hazardous waste sites, and permit facilities.)  ​https://dtsc.ca.gov

California Water Boards

Mission is “To preserve, enhance, and restore the quality of California’s water resources and drinking water for the protection of the environment, public health, and all beneficial uses, and to ensure proper water resource allocation and efficient use, for the benefit of present and future generations.” (includes underground storage tank cleanup. waterboards.ca.gov

California Air Resources Board

“CARB’s mission is to promote and protect public health, welfare, and ecological resources through effective reduction of air pollutants while recognizing and considering effects on the economy. CARB is the lead agency for climate change programs and oversees all air pollution control efforts in California to attain and maintain health-based air quality standards.” https://ww2.arb.ca.gov

Office of Env Health Hazard Assessment 

“OEHHA is responsible for conducting health risk assessments of chemical contaminants found in air, including those identified as toxic air contaminants or on the list of chemicals under the “Hot Spots” Information and Assessment Act.” ​https://oehha.ca.gov/air

California Department of Public Health

Main Agency “The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) works to protect the public’s health in the Golden State and helps shape positive health outcomes for individuals, families and communities. CDPH public health professionals, researchers, scientists, doctors, nurses, and other staff­ members have a shared vision to protect and improve the health of all Californians.” ​https://www.cdph.ca.gov

Healthy Communities “The Center for Healthy Communities (CHC) is committed to public health approaches that strengthen both state and local leadership, alignment, and partnerships to drive action to influence determinants of health, eliminate health inequalities, and achieve positive health outcomes.” https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CCDPHP/Pages/Program-Landing1.aspx

Federal Oversight

Federal EPA
Our mission is to protect human health and the environment.”

“EPA’s Brownfields Program provides grants and technical assistance to communities, states, tribes and others to assess, safely clean up and sustainably reuse contaminated properties. “

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registery
“ATSDR protects communities from harmful health effects related to exposure to natural and man-made hazardous substances.”

OSHA Chemical Hazards
“Ensure safe and healthful working conditions for workers by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.”

U.S. Energy – Environmental Management Cleanup Sites
“As the largest environmental cleanup program in the world, EM has been charged with the responsibility of cleaning up 107 sites across the country whose area is equal to the combined area of Rhode Island and Delaware.”

U.S. Energy Information Administration 
“The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) collects, analyzes, and disseminates independent and impartial energy information to promote sound policymaking, efficient markets, and public understanding of energy and its interaction with the economy and the environment.”

Department of Defense – Cleanup Sites
“The DOD Environment, Safety & Occupational Health Network and Information Exchange (DENIX) is a collaborative cloud platform used to share and report Department of Defense (DOD) specific environment, safety & occupational health (ESOH) information with the public and DOD communities. “

U.S. Army – Cleanup Sites
“The Army’s Environmental Restoration Program, more commonly called the Army Cleanup Program, addresses hazardous substances, pollutants, contaminants and military munitions resulting from past activities at active Army installations. Its mission, along with protecting human health and the environment, is to enable readiness by returning Army lands to usable condition. The Cleanup Program accomplishes this by performing appropriate, cost-effective remediation of contaminated sites”

Environmental Justice & ​Environmental Racism

“Environmental justice (EJ) is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” [EPA: Link

“Environmental justice really reflects the fundamental reality that vulnerable communities are all too often subject to the disproportionate burden of pollution and contamination.​” [NRDC: Link]


  • Research and learn more about these chemical release sites, how chemical contamination of the env works, how it can affect human health, and who is impacted the worst  
  • Spread the word that this is something that can impact us in the Bay Area 
  • Donate time and/or money to groups who are fighting for Env Justice, healthy environments, and corporate accountability 
  • ​If someone is moving to the Bay Area, suggest they search the property with the research tools first 
  • ​If you’re not already aware, spend some timing reading about the public health crisis in Treasure Island and Bayview-Hunters Point in San Francisco ​
  • ​Tell the press you want to see more coverage on these topics 
  • Volunteer with and/or donate to Greenaction or ICRT
  • Contact the agencies in charge and ask questions about nearby sites 
  • Talk to CHEJ Technical Assistance if you want help understanding the science from a 3rd party 
  • Talk to your political representatives about Brownfield reform and/or Env Justice 
  • Share your concerns with your friends and on social media, forums, etc.
  • Request Leadership Training from CHEJ (founded by Lois Gibbs, who advocated for protection from the Love Canal pollution, and that advocacy created the EPA Superfund program)  ​
  • If you’re aware of illegal chemical dumping in Santa Clara County, report it

This page was migrated from the prior site at: https://web.archive.org/web/20221218215529/http://www.whatsintheair.org/