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Chemical Testing A Smoking Gun For Vieques Protests


October 13, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

The revelation that a simulated chemical agent, which can cause cancer in some animals, was used during a military exercise 33 years ago has heightened opposition to military training on Puerto Rico's small Vieques island.

''The whole Vieques issue has been, in great part, a health issue,'' said Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá, Puerto Rico's representative in Washington. ``This makes our case even stronger. The general feeling is that [the military] has tested many things that we don't know about. This is just the first admission.''

Residents of the century-old municipality of Vieques have long been convinced -- albeit without scientific evidence -- that the training maneuvers that continue on the eastern side of the island are to blame for a perceived cancer epidemic.

That belief was strengthened Wednesday after the Pentagon's acknowledgement that some soldiers were engaged in chemical and biological weapons testing in the 1960s in Vieques, and several states, including Alaska, Florida and Hawaii.


During a training mission on Vieques in May 1969, Marine jets sprayed a chemical called trioctyl phosphate, or TOF, on Marine units, to simulate a nerve agent known as VX.

Although a link between TOF and cancer in humans has not been established, the revelation has angered many residents.

''We cannot allow any more exercises to take place here,'' said Judith Conde, who heads a group that helps female cancer victims. ``For the admission to come from the military is too much. People feel like they've been lied to. It has to stop right now.''

''Many people have already died of cancer and others whose deaths were blamed on cardiac conditions we later discovered from autopsies that they also had cancer,'' said Henry Gonzalez, vice mayor of Vieques. ``It must be from the military exercises.''

The number of cancer cases among the island's population of 9,300 is not yet known because Puerto Rico's cancer registry has not been properly maintained. However, the registry is being updated. Also, studies by the Department of Health are under way to determine if the incidence of cancer is more prevalent in Vieques than elsewhere in Puerto Rico, and to look at potential causes.

Preliminary results indicate that the cancer mortality rate does appear to be significantly higher in Vieques, said Dr. Juan Carlos Orengo, director of epidemiology. The next step is to determine if military activities are to blame for the apparent higher incidence rate.

Dr. Francis O'Donnell, a military physician with the Defense Department's Deployment Health Support Directorate, said the likelihood that TOF is linked to cancer in humans is remote because the agent appears to be ``pretty innocuous for human beings.''

But he agreed that cause- and -effect studies would be essential to determine ''if the hypothesis has legs.'' Generally, the effect of cancer-causing agents on humans can be delayed by 10 to 25 years, O'Donnell said.


Navy officials have asserted that training exercises on Vieques don't hurt the people or the environment.

Christopher Penny is the Navy's environmental project coordinator in charge of cleanup efforts on land that was turned over to Vieques and the U.S. Department of Interior last year. Referring to the widespread view that there is a link between cancer cases and the military exercises, Penny said: ``That's a misconception, but it's hard to convey that [in Vieques] because of the low trust the people have of the military.

''I have not seen any evidence to link their health problems with the [military] activities,'' he said.

Those assurances bring no comfort to people like 44-year-old Ilsa Ortiz, who was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 1999 and had three aunts die of cancer, or Cecilia Alejandro, 68, whose left breast was removed in 1996 and whose brother died of prostate cancer. Eva Torres Morales, 47, survived Hodgkin's Disease in 1988 and cancer in the uterus in 1994. Zaida Torres Rodríguez, 42,lost a daughter to leukemia five years ago.

''There is no heavy cultivation here or factories; the only ones emitting contaminants is the Navy,'' said Torres Rodríguez.

Her daughter, Liza Rosa Torres, died at age 17, one month after finishing the first phase of treatment for leukemia.

''If we don't stop it now, future generations will also be affected,'' Torres Rodríguez said.

Opposition to the Navy's six-decade presence in Vieques grew after an April 1999 accident in which two off-target bombs killed a civilian guard at the range. The Navy began dropping dummy bombs, which contain no explosives, after the civilian guard's death.

President Bush has said the exercises will cease by next May.

Residents said the new revelation makes the need to end the exercises more urgent.

''All that stuff comes over here and we inhale it,'' said Rosa Santiago, 41, who is undergoing treatment for cancer in the liver and has several other health problems. ``I don't drink, smoke or do drugs, so how can I be so sick? The environment here is terrible.''

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