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Study: Vieques' Cancer Rates Higher Than Puerto Rico's
By Iván Román | San Juan Bureau
May 10, 2003
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The 9,100 residents of the offshore island of Vieques, where for six decades the U.S. Navy bombed, stored and burned weapons, are 27 percent more likely to have cancer than other Puerto Ricans, according to a study released Friday by the commonwealth's Health Department.
Cancer patients in Vieques, where about 40 new cases are diagnosed each year, also are more likely to die -- a trend health officials hope to reverse with more preventive-medicine and early-detection programs, said Puerto Rico Health Secretary Johnny Rullán as he laid out the statistics.
"Our goal now is to catch the cancer when it's still localized in one part of the body, before it spreads," Rullán said. "And while we try to find out what the causes are, we have to work on the other diseases as well, and quickly."
To reach its conclusions, the Puerto Rico Health Department conducted an 18-month house-to-house census across Vieques to determine the island's cancer rate of 341 cases for every 10,000 residents versus 270 cases per 10,000 on the main island. A smaller sampling concluded Vieques has higher instances of asthma, diabetes and hypertension than Puerto Rico as a whole.
It was concern about cancer that served as the rallying cry for activists who campaigned for years to force the Navy to cease bombing and leave the land it had controlled on the tiny island since World War II.
Those activists contend there is a definite link between cancer on Vieques and the military operations.
Navy officials, who repeatedly have said there is no link between military activities and any illnesses on the island, could not be reached late Friday to comment on the study.
On May 1, the Navy handed over the 15,500 acres, including the bombing range, on the eastern side of the island to the U.S. Department of the Interior to establish a wildlife refuge. The military gave up another 8,000 on the west side two years ago. Since the late 1930s, the island's civilian population has been sandwiched in between.
Shortly after two wayward bombs killed a civilian security guard near the target range and set off the Vieques controversy in April 1999, the Navy was forced to admit that it improperly used a few hundred bullets coated with depleted uranium. The substance, a carcinogen that remains radioactive for 4.5 billion years, allows bullets to pierce tanks.
Many of the bullets were never found.
These shells, first used in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, release microscopic particles. Iraqi doctors blame the substance for a significant increase in cancer and birth defects inthe Gulf region. In the 1990s, the Navy reported levels of arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, manganese, mercury and other heavy metals associated with weaponry sometimes hundreds of times above limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
These metals can remain in human tissue for years, and prolonged exposure to some of themhas been linked to cancer.
More detailed comparative studies on soil, groundwater, behavior and lifestyle, genetics, plants, trees, fish, and radiation levels -- which will take two years -- will start now to try to determine distinguishing patterns that can help point to causes.
But residents are convinced exposure to carcinogens in the food chain and, particularly, the air are to blame for the statistics cited in the Health Department report.
Although studies are far from complete, health officials noted that colon cancer in women and lung-cancer rates are higher in Vieques than in Puerto Rico, even though both populations smoke at similar levels.
"I seldom touch our local fish anymore," said Vieques activist Myrna V. Pagán, who had a hysterectomy last year to treat uterine cancer. "Here the waters have been contaminated. No one can deny that."
Rullán said determining a cause is still a ways off, but knowing the cancer rate is higher paves the way for other studies that can provide answers.
"Too many people are dying and that's not being tended to," said Pagán, who sits on one of the subcommittees advising Puerto Rico's government on the contentious negotiations over cleaning up the land. "Statistics are great, but the government has to take action. What I want is action."
Health Department officials say they already have improved preventive health care on the island and are stepping up health-education campaigns, free clinics and screenings for diabetes, asthma and other illnesses. Rullán said he has decided to test all children in Vieques for heavy metals and then broaden the effort to adults.
"What's important here is that we're not going to abandon Vieques," Rullánsaid. "We always said that if the Navy leaves, that to us was irrelevant. We have to increase the health services there, and that's what we're doing."