ATSDR: No proof of Vieques health-military link
The draft report issued Thursday stemmed from a re-evaluation of earlier studies on the impact of live-fire training on the health of Vieques residents. It nearly concludes a federal investigation into health problems in Vieques. Critics say they will continue to fight for those who are ill.
Puerto Rican officials and Vieques residents are criticizing Thursday's preliminary federal report. They have long blamed health problems on the Navy, which used the island as a bombing range for six decades.
The agency, a part of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, used its own studies to initially conclude in 2003 that there was essentially no health risk from the bombing range — a conclusion widely criticized by academics and residents on the 18-mile-long island of less than 10,000 people.
That skepticism prompted the ATSDR to review its 2003 research about the health consequences of six decades of Navy bombing practice and war games. The ATSDR identified gaps in environmental data that could be important in determining health effects and pledged in 2009 to take a fresh look at Vieques, including research by the Puerto Rico Health Department.
The results of the re-evaluation released in a 360-page report Thursday essentially echoed the 2003 findings that contamination levels in the air, soil and waters of Vieques do not explain chronic health problems in Vieques. The ATSDR did note the need for further studies.
Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi questioned the report’s preliminary findings.
“I find it unacceptable that, despite acknowledging a marked difference in the prevalence of chronic diseases in Vieques, the ATSDR admits that the data collection is not sufficient,” Pierluisi said. “Vieques residents have sacrificed enough. The federal government has the responsibility to undertake all necessary studies and provide funding for an in-depth investigation into the health of Vieques residents.”
The Navy abandoned its target range on Vieques in 2003 amid massive protests that sprang up in the wake of the 1999 killing of a civilian security guard during a bombing run gone awry. The military fired and dropped millions of pounds of bombs, rockets and artillery shells, including napalm, depleted uranium and Agent Orange, on Vieques starting in 1941. A cleanup began in 2005 to clear thousands of unexploded munitions from the former range, which is now a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service refuge, and the island has placed new emphasis on tourism.
After over a half a century of bombings, Viequenses – as locals are known – have a 25 percent higher infant mortality rate, 30 percent higher rate of cancer, a 381 percent higher rate of hypertension, a 95 percent higher rate of cirrhosis of the liver, and a 41 percent higher rate of diabetes than those on the main island,
The new report acknowledged elevated levels of mercury in local seafood, an important part of the diet of many Vieques residents. However, the ATSDR said the evidence doesn’t tie the toxic metal to military exercises.
“ATSDR’s evaluation of mercury in the Vieques environment indicates that the mercury is most likely coming from the global reservoir of mercury in the environment and not from past military exercises,” the report said. “Nevertheless, because of continued public health concerns, ATSDR continues its evaluation of mercury in fish.”
The release of the report opens a 90-day public comment period. It does not represent, and should not be construed as representing, any agency determination or policy, the ATSDR said.
Pierluisi noted that the report issued last spring by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status pointed to a range of problems on Vieques after the decades of military exercises.
“That report recognized that the federal government has a long way to go in improving the life of Vieques residents,” he said.
The resident commissioner called for the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee to hold hearings on the matter. Pierluisi is a member of that panel.
The ATSDR is not recommending a comprehensive, systematic biomonitoring effort at this time, but said public health officials could consider a limited and focused human biomonitoring investigation that should include a comparison group from mainland Puerto Rico.
“It concerns me that the report does not recommend a comprehensive, systematic biomonitoring effort,” Pierluisi said, noting that the ATSDR did order such an effort regarding concerns voiced by residents around the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune base in North Carolina, the resident commissioner noted.
“It’s not clear why it didn’t do the same with Vieques,” he said.
Among the ATSDR’s recommendations:
¯ Developing an educational program about mercury in fish that incorporates local habits and information about Viequenses’ seafood consumption.
¯ Maintaining fishing restrictions near the former bombing range.
¯ That Viequenses talk to their healthcare providers about the need for biologic testing.
¯ Additional sampling of locally grown foods to better evaluate this exposure pathway.
¯ Sampling surface soil in the island’s residential areas to address uncertainties regarding residential soil contamination issues.
¯ Clean-up activities continue in the LIA and other former military exercise areas to prevent human exposures to harmful contaminants.