Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Carcinogens found in marine life in island of Vieques in Puerto Rico

Published on Saturday, February 21, 2009
By María Miranda Sierra Caribbean Net News Puerto Rico Correspondent Email:

“And we now know that these munitions are leaking cancer-causing materials and endangering sea life.” University of Georgia Ecologist James Porter

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico: After gathering samples from an underwater nuclear bomb target – the USS Killen -- since 1999 in the small island of Vieques in Puerto Rico, University of Georgia Ecologist James Porter thought he would find evidence of radioactive material but instead discovered that unexploded munitions in the waters around the island are leaking cancer causing matter. These carcinogenic materials are absorbed by marine life and could very well be transferred to humans when they eat seafood, fished in the area. In addition, data revealed that the closer corals and marine life were to unexploded bombs from the World War II vessel and the surrounding target range, the higher the rates of carcinogenic materials. “Unexploded bombs are in the ocean for a variety of reasons – some were duds that did not explode, others were dumped in the ocean as a means of disposal,” Porter said in a written statement. “And we now know that these munitions are leaking cancer-causing materials and endangering sea life.” Porter’s findings will be presented at the Second International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions on February 25-27 in Honolulu, Hawaii. He has been gathering data since 1999 on the eastern end of the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico – a land and sea area that was used as a naval gunnery and bombing range from 1943-2003. In 2001, the residents of the island of Vieques which was used as a bombing range claimed over a $100 million in damages from the US Navy over claims that ammunition including depleted uranium (DU) shells caused cancer epidemic. More than a third of the 9,000 inhabitants of Vieques have been found to be suffering from a range of serious illnesses and cancers, which doctors have linked to decades of bombing by the US and the military of other countries including the British Royal Navy. According to official Puerto Rican figures, cancer rates on the island are soaring, with the numbers of people suffering from cancer of the breast, cervix and uterus up by 300 percent over the past 20 years.Still, the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry made a study of their own after the Navy’s exit from Vieques which concluded that there was no evidence of any harm to the island’s residents from the Navy’s bombings there. However, a study made by the Commonwealth’s Health Department concluded that it was highly likely that the toxic chemicals released by the Navy’s military exercises into the environment could be the main cause for the increase in illnesses such as cancer, lupus and heart conditions. An additional study made in the bombing area by leading Puerto Rican environmental scientists Dr. Neftalí García and Jorge Fernández, showed dangerously high levels of heavy metals and other toxic chemical components related to military activities in the soil and water. Robert L. Rabin Siegal, a member of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques Scientific said that additional studies carried out identified high concentrations of arsenic, barium, cadmium, zinc, cobalt, copper, tin, mercury, silver and lead. “Aluminum, chromium, iron, manganese, nickel, and vanadium concentrations were found in some areas. High concentrations of nitrates, nitrites, ammonia, hydrocarbons typical of diesel fuel, and phosphates, that are formed from bomb explosions or are present in other war artifacts, were also found. The metals found in high concentrations are present in explosives, propellants, paints, conventional and uranium bullets, napalm, chaff, flares and other paraphernalia used by the Navy in Vieques,” Siegal said. According to Siegel, metals have been found in plants, violinist crabs, fish, mussels, Thalassia and sea grass beds, and humans in Vieques, which confirm the expected processes of biomagnifications. High concentrations of mercury and lead have been found in hair samples of civilians in Vieques subcontracted by US companies like Raytheon and General Electric to work in the impact areas. High concentrations of aluminum, antimony, arsenic, bismuth and lead have been found in hair samples of a large number of civilians in Vieques that do not work in impact areas, Siegal said. Other metals found in above normal levels are boron, cadmium, tin, manganese, mercury, silver and vanadium. Uranium in above normal concentrations has also been found in stool samples of civilians, he added. While the Navy was still in Vieques local fishermen struggled for decades to get the Navy to stop bombing and leave the island. “Giant military ships destroyed fish traps and bombing and other maneuvers impose severe restrictions on fishermen's entry into some of the best fishing areas around the island. On numerous occasions fishing boats have been damaged by naval gunfire and fishermen have been severely hurt by bombs exploding close to their fishing activities,” Siegal said. Meanwhile, Porter’s research revealed that marine life including reef-building corals, feather duster worms and sea urchins closest to the bomb and bomb fragments had the highest levels of toxicity. “In fact, carcinogenic materials were found in concentrations up to 100,000 times over established safe limits. This danger zone covered a span of up to two meters from the bomb and its fragments,” reads the reports findings. According to research conducted in Vieques, residents here have a 23 percent higher cancer rate than do Puerto Rican mainlanders. Porter said a future step will be “to determine the link from unexploded munitions to marine life to the dinner plate.” While Porter believes every nation with a coastline has problems with unexploded munitions, there is a solution. “With the creation of the Ordinance Recovery System, we now have a way to safely remove unexploded munitions,” he said. The machine, Porter said, picks up unexploded bombs off the sea floor and delivers them safely to a lift basket for surface disposal or deep sea burial. It is operated remotely with proportional toggle switches that allow much more fine control of the delicate undersea operation than an on/off button. The system relies on an underwater hydraulic system designed by James Barton, president of Underwater Ordinance Recovery, Inc., with the technical expertise of machinists at the UGA instrument shop. “When you remove the bomb, you remove the problem – but you've got to pick it up,” Porter added.

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