Popular Kids’ Camp: Scientists Raise New Safety Concerns
Top scientists raise questions about a nearby former nuclear testing site and whether it poses risks to campers
Four nationally known scientists are recommending new testing at a popular LA area camp to determine if contaminants at a nearby former nuclear testing site have posed health risks to past and current campers.
The scientists independently reached that conclusion after reviewing various reports of past testing at Camp Alonim and the land where it operates, the Brandeis-Bardin campus, owned by the American Jewish University (AJU).
The camp sits below the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, which for decades hosted rocket and experimental nuclear reactor testing. It is still awaiting a full cleanup.
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Many parents and former staff members have long worried that the 2,800-acre children's camp in Simi Valley may contain harmful amounts of radioactive and chemical pollution from the long-closed Field Lab. Both the AJU and state toxics regulators say the land is safe.
So I contacted four experts, who have not been involved in the often rancorous debate over the camp's safety. All four concluded that too many questions remain unanswered.
"If you looked at this historically and said, 'Could being at the camp have led to radiation exposure' the answer is yes," said Dr. Jonathan Samet, an internationally known radiation expert and dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, one of the scientists interviewed.
Click the video below to watch our previous "Camp Cover-Up" report.
After the story aired and generated concern among parents, one of the nation's largest Jewish newspapers--the Jewish Journal--contacted me with a question: Could I investigate and find out if children at Camp Alonim were safe?
I knew this was a tough assignment. I've probed the risks of nuclear power plants and Superfund sites during more than 30 years of health and environmental science reporting, including 18 years at the Los Angeles Times.
As I dug deep into old records, I confirmed many of the facts NBC4 had already reported. I also discovered that AJU and state officials have never shown conclusive evidence that Camp Alonim has been free of high levels of dangerous toxins all the way from its 1953 start to today.
But before my research could appear in the Jewish Journal, a new publisher said he would not be publishing my story.
So my findings are appearing here. They're based on two years of reporting, reviews of more than 300 studies and other documents, and interviews with more than 50 people.
Three Key Findings:
- Test results cited by the camp and state regulators are either too old or too inconclusive to definitely say whether children are safe from contamination from the Field Lab, several scientists said.
- A 2016 study paid for by the camp's owner, to investigate concerns about contamination, is flawed, according to UC Irvine public health professor Oladele Ogunseitan.
- AJU asserts the camp has no history of growing food for children to eat, a claim challenged by past staff. Food grown in toxic soil can pose risks.
Nuclear Reactors Above the Playing Fields
I first visited Camp Alonim two years ago, when I was researching this piece for the Jewish Journal. I was invited by Rabbi Jay Strear, AJU's senior vice president and second in command and its point person for Santa Susana Field Lab issues.
Most camp activities - 99.9 percent of them, Strear said - are centered at Brandeis-Bardin's north end, with its playing fields and wood-frame dormitories. That is the opposite end from the old testing site.
But former campers describe hiking and riding horses uphill toward the contaminated lab site. Two long-time campsites, the Old Well and Hidden Valley campsites, sit perched in the hills, closer to the old lab.
Big Discoveries, Big Pollution
The Santa Susana Field Lab is not a household name in modern-day Los Angeles.
It produced some of the nation's most important advances in rocket and space travel until 2006, and its nuclear tests from the 1950s to 1988 included at least ten experimental reactors. Some of those reactors were less than 1000 feet from the pre-1997 border of the Brandeis-Bardin camp, according to an old map.
The downside: Hundreds of accidents, large and small, many releasing radiation, according to a 2012 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Over the years, the lab site became polluted with thousands of tons of radiological and chemical waste, according to studies from the EPA and site operators. Some of those contaminants have been found at the nearby children's camp.
The AJU and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) have pointed to three rounds of tests as proof that the contaminants pose no significant health threat to children at Camp Alonim:
- Comprehensive tests in the early 1990s, paid for by the past owner of the Field Lab and overseen by EPA.
- Smaller testing in 2016, conducted by the consulting firm Tetra Tech and paid for by AJU.
- Occasional tests by AJU's own paid environmental consultant.
Scientists: New Testing is Key
To learn more about if contamination from the Field Lab might affect children, I turned to the four independent experts in radiation and chemicals. None of them has ties to AJU or Camp Alonim.
They scrutinized testing results from 1992 and 1994, based on the most comprehensive testing ever done at Brandeis-Bardin. Two of them also reviewed smaller, more recent testing.
All four agreed that new, comprehensive testing is needed before they could bless the camp as safe, or say it's unsafe.
"Dust with radioactivity could have reached play areas. Kids could have had it on their hands," Dr. Jonathan Samet said.
LA's Nuclear Secret: Watch Previous Reports
"Yes, the children are only there a few weeks a year, Samet added. "But if some children attend every summer and then become camp counselors, their possible dose might be multiplied as they attend year after year."
A second radiation expert agrees with Samet. He is Paul A. Locke, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Both Samet and Locke have chaired and served on expert panels of the National Academy of Sciences that looked at radiation and health.
Locke said that campers in the 1950s and 1960s likely faced more risks than those who attended Camp Alonim more recently, since radiation decays over time. He suggested that plans for new testing should involve "the camp community (ie, past and current parents) and what they want to learn."
AJU has said repeatedly that no new testing is needed.
Rabbi Jay Strear said in a March 15 letter to NBC4 that AJU does not understand "why this reporting continues when no environmental testing data support it; when ample testing data support the opposite conclusion; and when our camp has been found to be safe for use by every government agency and environmental engineer who has studied it."
University spokeswoman Joanna Gerber declined to comment for this article, referring to answers provided in the past. A spokeswoman for state toxic regulators, who also provided answers earlier, declined to answer most questions.
A big concern of parents has been fruits and vegetables grown at the camp that they say were eaten by the kids.
Eating produce could be risky if plants were tainted with high levels of toxins from contaminated soil, said another expert, Dr. David O. Carpenter, a University at Albany public health professor who directs its Institute for Health and the Environment.
Campers could also inhale contamination or consume it if they got it on their hands from soil and then put their fingers in their mouths, Carpenter said.
So on my visit to Camp Alonim, I asked Rabbi Strear to show me the camp gardens.
He took me to a handful of raised beds at the center of camp, with a few sprigs of flowers, herbs and young vegetable plants and to a much larger garden, shut down in 2015 and surrounded by weeds .
Strear wrote me later that growing produce to eat is not part of the camp's history.
"The food grown on the camp is not consumed as a part of a camper's everyday diet," he said in an email.
But three former camp staff members say that camp-grown vegetables were indeed an Alonim staple.
Hannah Kuhn, a former librarian who worked at Brandeis-Bardin from 1975 until 2008, said that campers and staff were continually eating produce grown there.
"The corn I ate was grown at Brandeis. The avocadoes I ate were grown at Brandeis. The tomatoes I ate were grown at Brandeis," said Kuhn, who has also served as an informal camp historian.
Garden produce was harvested and served in the dining hall, and the grounds keeping staff grew corn that they shared with campers, she said.
"Most definitely there were gardens, and the kids would pick the produce, and it was cooked for dinner," said Rabbi Laurie Hahn Tapper, who directed the Brandeis Camp Institute summer program from 2005 to 2007.
"There were corn field, zucchini, lots of vegetables," she said.
Rabbi Scott Aaron also said that campers grew and ate garden food.
"Frequently I would send my students out into the field. They would make salads," said Aaron, who led the Brandeis Camp Institute program from 2001 to 2004. "Young campers would come to the orchard and eat things."
I asked AJU spokesperson Gerber to respond to the former staff member's statements that produce was routinely consumed at the camp, despite what Strear earlier told me. She said she'd research the discrepancy, but I haven't heard back from her.
Missing Lab Reports
The April 2016 Tetra Tech report concluded that Alonim campers were not at risk.
One of Tetra Tech's 21 soil samples collected at the camp, however, provoked concern among some parents. It contained strontium-90, a product of nuclear fission, at more than twice normal levels.
The strontium-90 sample came from dried-up Meier Creek at the center of camp activities. Strontium-90 is a radioactive substance that has been found at the former field lab, according to US EPA tests.
DTSC, in its own May 2017 report declaring the camp safe, did not express concern about the strontium-90 finding. It said that other factors could potentially produce a reading higher than what the sample contained.
I discovered other problems that scientists say are troubling in the 2016 Tetra Tech study:
- The firm collected 21 soil samples, not the 19 samples it describesin detail, according to the report. It does not explain the discrepancy.
- Laboratory results for the two missing samples, from the camp's Old Well and Hidden Valley campsites, do not appear in the study.
- The study is also missing laboratory results of its tests for perchlorate, a chemical used in Santa Susana rocket fuel.
- The study does not meet several of Tetra Tech's own record-keeping standards, published in its report. For instance, the study did not give the depths of most soil samples were taken, and doesn't include photos of 10 sites where samples were collected.
UC Irvine public health professor Oladele Ogunseitan reviewed the Tetra Tech study, with its 21 samples, and said he believes it was too small for the 2800-acre Brandeis camp property.
You have to do hundreds of measurements in a property that large," said Ogunseitan, the founding professor of the university's Department of Population Health and Disease Prevention.
He said he does not trust Tetra Tech's camp findings given recent news that the firm appears to have provided fraudulent data for hundreds of samples at a large radiation cleanup site in San Francisco. Tetra Tech has denied the allegations.
Two Tetra Tech supervisors have been sentenced to eight months in prison for falsifying cleanup records at the San Francisco site.
"It's a big red flag," Ogeunseitan said.
Locke at Johns Hopkins said that he is puzzled why Tetra Tech listed only two of seven potential ways that children could be exposed to toxins - by swallowing or having skin contact with soil or sediment. There's no mention of contact with water or of eating produce, even though former staff have said children ate camp-grown food.
"When I look at this, I have to ask, did the people who wrote this ever go to summer camp?" Locke asked.
A Tetra Tech spokeswoman referred questions about the discrepancies to AJU, which declined to answer them.
"The university has provided detailed responses to your questions and has directed you to various sampling reports, analyses, studies and other records," stated an email from Joanna Gerber, the university's vice president for marketing and communications.
AJU referred to DTSC's comments last October, when asked about the 2016 Tetra Tech study.
It quoted DTSC saying that the expansive early 1990s testing , which was also considered by Tetra Tech, "provides a powerful basis that no contaminants (from the nuclear testing area) have migrated to the Brandeis-Bardin property."
DTSC added, "The 19 additional soil/sediment samples collected by Tetra Tech provided high quality, decision level data that confirmed and supported these findings."
DTSC didn't respond to most of my recent questions, but instead emailed me a brief statement.
"We stand by our finding that the Brandeis campus is safe for use by faculty, staff, students, campers and other visitors," DTSC spokeswoman Rosanna Westmoreland wrote.
The four scientists consulted for this article continue to believe that new testing is necessary to reach some conclusion about campers' risks.
The latest federal standards for radiation, far more stringent than in the past, could have shown a more significant risk for campers based on past Brandeis-Bardin testing, experts said.
At the same time, the strength of radiation "decays" or lessens over time, the experts said. That means that any risk to campers today is probably less than it was 50 years ago, when several reactors suffered serious accidents.
"I would much rather have sent my kids here in the 1990s and 2000s rather than the 50s and 60s," Locke said.
Yet the scientists' concerns remain the same. Barring new testing, they said, they have no way to determine that Camp Alonim is, or isn't, safe.
"It seems to me," Samet said, "that a good starting point would be to look again at environmental measurements and try to determine where things are now."
About the Experts
Prof. Oladele Ogunseitan: The founding chair of the Department of Population Health & Disease Prevention at the University of California, Irvine, Prof. Ogunseitan served on the State of California Green Ribbon Science Panel and the state's advisory committee on the Community Protection and Hazardous Waste Reduction Initiative. Read his full bio
Dr. Jonathan Samet: Dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, Dr. Samet is a pulmonary physician and epidemiologist. He was the Flora L. Thornton Chair for the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California and Director of the USC Institute for Global Health. Read his full bio
Dr. Paul A. Locke is an environmental health scientist. He has an MPH from Yale University School of Medicine and a DrPH from the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. Read his full bio
Prof. David Carpenter is director of the University of Albany's Institute for Health and the Environment. He examines the dangers of PCBs. Read his full bio
About the Author
Deborah Schoch has been a journalist for more than 30 years. She graduated from Cornell University and became a staff writer for four daily newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. In 18 years there, she focused on health, science and the environment. Schoch was awarded a year-long Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, where she studied environmental science, politics and law. She later helped found the CHCF Center for Health Reporting at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and spent six years on staff as a senior writer. She is now an independent journalist.