US report says no proof of cancer-military link on Puerto Rico island of Vieques
Saturday, 17 December 2011

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A U.S. agency on Thursday accepted local claims that there is a higher incidence of cancer and other health ills on Vieques island compared with neighboring Puerto Rico, but said there is no proof the problem is linked to U.S. military activity.


The long-awaited preliminary report was widely criticized by Puerto Rican officials and Vieques residents long resentful of health problems that they blame on the Navy, which used the tiny island as a bombing range for six decades.


The 361-page report by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry nearly concludes a federal investigation into health problems on Vieques, but critics said they would continue to fight for those who are ill.


“We have people from Vieques who got sick through exposure that could have been prevented if the agency had done its job,” said local scientist Arturo Massol, who was invited to consult on the review but said he was never contacted. “As a result of that reality, this agency, which has dragged its feet, has become in part responsible for the damage to their health.”


In 2009, the agency pledged to review its much criticized 2003 report that found there was essentially no health risk from the bombing range, which was closed that year.


But critics point to a study by a former Puerto Rico health minister that found cancer rates on Vieques were 27 percent higher than on the main island. That study said there are no significant lifestyle differences between the two groups, and said it also detected a higher prevalence of other illnesses, including diabetes, asthma and epilepsy.


U.S. officials maintain in the new report that the scientific data presented about island health problems was inadequate, limited and flawed, making it “difficult and uncertain” to interpret findings regarding chronic diseases. The report said elevated levels of certain chemicals in people’s bodies could be attributed to causes other than military activity.


The agency suggested U.S. officials could work with the Puerto Rico government to obtain additional samples and keep track of health conditions on Vieques.


“We believe that Viequenses are right to be concerned about their health, and we are proposing certain actions to ensure their health,” said Christopher Portier, director of the agency.


Vieques Mayor Evelyn Delerme said the report lacked credibility and offered no new information.


“It appears that this report is intended to be ‘inconclusive by design,’” she said in a statement.


Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting in the U.S. House of Representatives, said he would request a congressional hearing to discuss the report’s findings and obtain an update on the cleanup of unexploded munitions that began in 2005.


He called the report flawed.


“The health problems of Vieques residents have long been recognized,” he said. “You have to ask yourself why the federal government has not made the effort to obtain information that will allow it to reach responsible conclusions.”


U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman, a Democrat from New Jersey, said the report did not address concerns about what he called alarmingly high rates of serious and disabling health care problems in Vieques.


Source: Associated Press


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