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Vieques Cancer Rate An Issue

Vieques residents and others have long alleged that the high cancer rate on the tiny island is due to toxic materials released by the Navy's activities.

Special to The Herald

May 7, 2004
Copyright ©2004 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

New statistics from Puerto Rico's Health Department show the cancer rate in Vieques, a tiny island used by the U.S. Navy as a bombing range, continues to be significantly higher than on the main island.

Vieques' incidence of cancer for 1995-99 was 31 percent above the main island, even higher than the 27 percent gap reported in the early 1990s for the 1985-89 period, said Dr. Nayda Figueroa, an epidemiologist and director of Puerto Rico's Cancer Registry.

But Figueroa said that Vieques' cancer rate for the 1990-94 period was only 4 percent higher than the main island -- a difference that other experts said could be due to Vieques' population of only 9,100.

''The variations [for Vieques] across these three time periods are likely to reflect the relatively small population on Vieques and variations in the rates due to chance,'' said Dr. Michael Thun, head of epidemiological research for the American Cancer Society.

Figueroa revealed the latest figures this week as she worked to finish the registry's report for 1990-2000, expected within weeks. The registry usually issues reports for 10-year periods.

She said that in the 1995-2000 period some 30-40 new cases of cancer were reported each year among Vieques residents, while 9,000-10,000 new cases were reported on the main island, with a population of about 3.9 million.

Vieques residents and others have long alleged that the high cancer rate on the tiny island is due to toxic materials released by the Navy's activities on the island. But Figueroa cautioned that there are no in-depth studies of the causes of the cancers in Vieques.

''It's difficult to comment on something like this. The fact is we don't have any epidemiological study done in Vieques, not yet. Not in a scientific, conclusive way,'' she said.

The Navy has steadily insisted that there's no hard evidence linking its activities in Vieques to the high cancer rate there.

In a statement from Washington, the Navy said it had not seen the Figueroa statistics but was always interested in reviewing any valid studies on Vieques health issues.

''We are aware that the Center for Disease Control recently completed extensive public health studies in Vieques and determined [that] Navy training activities posed no adverse health effects to those on the island,'' it added.

But Figueroa's new statistics are certain to fuel complaints that the higher cancer rates in Vieques are linked to Navy activities on the 21-mile-long island six miles east of Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth.

''Most people in Vieques are convinced that the horrifically high cancer rates here are related to the 60 years of accumulated military toxins,'' said Robert Rabin, an activist with the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques.

Since 1941, the U.S. military used the eastern third of the island as a bombing range and the western third as an ammunition depot. Some 9,100 civilians lived in the middle third.

But in 1999 an errant bomb killed a civilian security guard and turned up the heat on long-running protests against the Navy's presence on the island. President Bush ordered the Navy in 2001 to close the base on May 1, 2003.

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