Scientists Debunk Vibroacoustic Disease Theory

by Robert Becker

October 26, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

An international committee of medical experts has exposed Gov. Sila Calderón’s Vieques heart disease theory for what it is: junk science.

On Tuesday, the committee delivered its long-awaited report on so-called vibroacoustic disease, a phantom ailment that Calderón had wielded as a weapon in her campaign to evict the U.S. Navy from Vieques. Calderón and doctors from the Ponce School of Medicine had frightened the population of Vieques into believing that Navy ship-to-shore shelling -- at a distance of 10 miles -- had damaged the hearts of Vieques fishermen.

Calderón and the architect of her vibroacoustic disease theory, high-priced Washington,

D.C. lawyer Richard Copaken, had convinced the people of Vieques that sound waves from Navy shelling traveled great distances underwater and subjected anyone in the water at the time to a jacuzzi-like effect that damaged their internal organs. Amidst an environment of intense anti-Navy sentiment, the Ponce medical school had studied a group of 53 Vieques commercial fisherman and a control group of 42 Ponce commercial fishermen.

The Ponce doctors, in a January, 2001 report that received wide publicity, said the Vieques fisherman showed heart abnormalities that they linked to the Navy ship-to-shore shelling. The doctors had compared echo cardiograms of the two groups and concluded the Vieques fishermen had substantial valvular abnormalities and thickening of the pericardial membrane of the heart.

The study set off an angry and frightened response in Vieques and also throughout Puerto Rico. Calderón conducted a swelling chorus of critics that the Navy was harming the health of Vieques residents. The Navy’s denials were drowned in the emotion of the moment.

In response, outgoing President Clinton asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to investigate the study’s findings. That request was then referred to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and to the cardiovascular diseases branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the meantime, the Ponce data was reviewed by the Mayo Clinic, which is recognized for expertise in reading echo cardiograms.

The ATSDR put together a panel of internationally recognized cardiologists and epidemiologists to review the Ponce medical school data. They met with the Ponce doctors on July 12 and 13 in San Juan, and produced the report which was released Tuesday -- just two weeks before a scheduled referendum on the Navy’s future in Vieques.

The review panel was composed of eight specialists in cardiology and echo cardiology and epidemiology. Four were from U.S. universities, two were from Mexico, and two were from Spain.

Among the findings of the review panel, as outlined in an executive summary report, was that neither the Ponce data supported nor the Mayor clinic review found any abnormally thick periocardiums in the fishermen. While the Ponce group nonetheless concluded the Vieques fishermen had thicker periocardiums, the Mayo Clinic reviewers found no statistically significant difference between the two groups.

The chief conclusion of the panel was, according to the executive summary, "that neither the Ponce nor the Mayo readings contained information indicating a cardiac health problem in the fishermen from either location."

That terse statement blew Calderón’s vibroacoustic disease theory out of the water. The report attributed the difference in findings of the two groups to measurement error of the echo cardiogram machines used.

Interestingly, the Calderón administration had abandoned the vibroacoustic disease theory in its federal lawsuit against the Navy at around the same time as the July meetings. Calderón quickly called a press conference Tuesday after the medical panel issued its report debunking the Vieques heart study.

Calderón put on a clinic of putting her own "spin" on a breaking news story that threatened to undermined her credibility. Calderón said she was pleased that the study found no cardiac problems among Vieques fishermen. "With respect to the only aspect evaluated by the panel, which is a partial aspect, it appears to be positive for viequenses, which should satisfy everyone," she said.

Calderón also averred that she had not caused undue alarm with her widespread denunciation of the so-called vibroacoustic disease purportedly caused by the Navy. Calderón maintained that she was simply acting on available scientific information at the time.

The release of the heart study review will not have much impact on whether the Navy will depart Vieques, as that issue has been largely overshadowed by the events of Sept. 11.

The real damage has been to Calderón’s personal credibility, much of which she had invested in the outcome of the heart study.

Robert Becker, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: dkarle@coqui.net


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