Rosa Navedo

(WOMENSENEWS)–With a flash of her gold rings, Rosa Navedo counted up the casualties.

Milivy Adams Calderon, dead at age 5 of lymphoma.

Liza Torres, lost at 17 to leukemia.

Hilda Diaz, 80, killed by kidney disease linked to diabetes.

“Every month, two or three more of us die,” says Navedo, one of 100 residents of Vieques, Puerto Rico, who are seeking compensation from the U.S. Navy for health problems they blame on its 60-year use of the island for bombing practice.

Sponsored by the John Arthur Eaves Law Offices in Jackson, Miss., and possibly heading to federal court later this year, the claim is part of larger battle for health justice on Vieques, a lush island famed for its stunning beaches and for having the highest disease rates in Puerto Rico.

The battle to peg the cause of health problems here–which some researchers tie to pollution by the Navy and which some do not–is a decades-long saga involving the U.S. military, environmental authorities, health agencies, and Congress. Leading the fight for answers are activist native women.

Health Problems Abound

Viequens have elevated risks of asthma (16 percent higher than mainland Puerto Rico); cancer (27 percent); diabetes (28 percent); and heart disease (31 percent), according to the Puerto Rico Department of Health. Residents are also more likely to have hypertension, skin problems, infertility and low birth weight.

Protest signs line a main street in Vieques

“Virtually everyone on this island is sick or has a friend or relative who is,” says Navedo, whose family members have suffered from lupus, diabetes, and cancer and who has herself battled preeclampsia, lupus, fibroids, fibromyalgia, thyroid cancer, and heart disease.

Working to address such health problems are local activist groups including the Alliance of Women (which is partnering with the Washington-based American Cancer Society to track local cancer rates) and the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques (whose female leaders are lobbying the government to create a formal disease registry).

Female activists have won one major battle on Vieques so far, convincing the government to boost services at the island’s single public health clinic, which has since 2001 had regular hours and three on-staff doctors so residents can receive basic care without taking the 10-mile ferry ride to the main island.

Nevertheless, “change is slow, and paperwork is thick,” says Alliance member Zaida Torres. While she sits on her maroon couch and pores over plans to open a full-fledged hospital on Vieques (a project she estimates could take 10 years or more), Torres looks for inspiration to a portrait of her teen-age daughter Liza, which was taken shortly before she died of leukemia in 1997. Her family has no history of having the disease.

Residents Blame Navy

The Navy began war maneuvers on Vieques in 1948.

Though explosions were set off on the unpopulated eastern shore, they nevertheless affected the native population, which is clustered in the middle of the 20-mile island and now numbers 10,000 residents. Buildings shook. Coral reefs died. Fish and shellfish, staples of the local diet, became less plentiful in the blue-green waters.

“In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the bombing was heaviest, you could stand on a hill and see a cloud over the shelled area,” says Carmen Quinones, a local innkeeper. “The cloud would stay for days, and people would cough and get asthma and skin rashes.”

After the bombing intensified a surge of health problems followed.

One was vibroaucoustic disease, which is triggered by exposure to loud noises and affects the internal organs. A 2001 study by Puerto Rico’s Ponce School of Medicine found 98 percent of local fisherman had heart abnormalities associated with this condition.

Another was cancer; more common on Vieques than anywhere else in Puerto Rico.

“Before the Navy stepped up target practice, Viequens had one third the average risk of cancer,” says Dr. Cruz M. Nazario, an epidemiologist at the University of Puerto Rico. “That risk is now 30 percent higher than average. There is no industry or other source of contamination here to release carcinogens into the environment, so many scientists believe the cause must be mercury, aluminum, arsenic and other pollutants left by the military.”

According to a 2001 study by the College of Physicians of Surgeons of Puerto Rico, 33 percent of Viequens have unsafe levels of mercury in their bodies, and 56 percent have unsafe levels of aluminum. Studies also show toxic levels of arsenic, cadmium and lead.

Feds Exonerate Navy

In response to charges that the Navy is responsible for pollution that causes disease on Vieques, the U.S. government commissioned its Atlanta-based Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to conduct a series of studies of the island’s air, soil, water and fish. All of this research, done in the early 2000s, concluded toxin levels were safe.

Navy sympathizers say factors independent of military operations could contribute to local health trouble. They note that 73 percent of Viequens live below the poverty line and unemployment stands at 14 percent. They also point to other possible causes: genetics, diet and contaminants blowing in on tradewinds from Africa.

“Chemicals are being dumped everywhere here, just as they are across the U.S.,” says Margot Cheney, a Spanish teacher on the island. “They’re in the plastics that we use and on our crops as herbicides and pesticides. Who’s to say that chemicals causing cancer come from the military and not from some other source?”

Kelley Stirling, a Navy spokesperson in Arlington, Va., says, “While we are concerned about the health of the people of Vieques, our No. 1 focus here is not health problems, but munitions cleanup, which we’re doing as quickly as we can and in compliance with U.S. environmental regulations.”

The Washington-based Environmental Protection Agency has designated Vieques as a “Superfund” site–one of the most contaminated sites containing unexploded ordinance in U.S. territory, and one deserving of priority cleanup.

Since the Navy pulled out, technicians have detonated more than 10.6 tons of explosives and cleared 300 acres of the Navy’s 14,500-acre former grounds. Researchers estimate that 8,750 more acres may contain leftover munitions, some of which date from World War II and some of which are more than 2,000 pounds in size. Cleanup has cost $53.5 million so far and will likely continue through 2015 and beyond.

Health Push Continues

While debate about the cause of health problems continues, so do efforts to address them.

Congressional representatives of Puerto Rican descent, including Nydia Velazquez and Jose Serrano (both New York Democrats), are pressuring the Navy to speed its work. Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D.-N.Y.) is calling on the Washington-based Government Accountability Office to reassess the validity of the official U.S. studies that found toxins at safe levels. These studies have been contested by researchers at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

“We’re in conversation with the U.S. government about doing further testing,” says Vincente Rosario, the director of communications for Vieques Island.

Navedo says she looks forward to more studies–but says her number one wish is that environmental cleanup be finished as soon as possible. “It’s true that the Navy gave us our land back,” she says. “But it’s also true that we can no longer safely live on it.”

Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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For more information:

Task Force on Latin American and the Caribbean
“Health Crisis in Vieques”:

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