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2003 | 55th Regular Session of the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights (28 July - 15 August 2003)

The impacts of bombing on human rights and environment in Vieques, Puerto Rico

Fifty-fifth Session, Palais des Nations, Geneva, 28 July – 15 August 2003

Dominicans for Justice and Peace, in conjunction with Franciscans International, brings to the attention of the Sub-Commission the situation of human rights of the people of Vieques in Puerto Rico.

Firstly, we wish to recognize that on May 1, 2003, the United States Navy ended more than six decades of bombing on Puerto Rico’s island municipality of Vieques. However, the fundamental rights of the 9,400 children, women and men of Vieques to life, a safe environment, adequate development, physical and mental health are violated every day by the toxic legacy left by the US Navy in Vieques.

The most urgent question is the extent to which the United States will remedy the public health disaster caused by the six decades of bombing.

For over 60 years, the residents of Vieques have lived down-wind from targets that were bombed up to 200 days a year. Virtually every conventional and non-conventional weapon used by the United States between 1940 and 2003, has been used in Vieques. This includes napalm, agent orange, depleted uranium (1999), white phosphorous, chemical weapons, and tons of high explosives and minute particles of a fibre-glass type substance, known as “chaff.”

Because the Navy’s bombing range is on the eastern end of Vieques, the prevailing winds carried particles of toxic debris and contaminated dust through the air, to the soil, seas, lagoons and drinking water of the people of Vieques.

The seas and coral reefs surrounding Vieques were also bombed. They remain polluted with unexploded bombs and other ordinance. The U.S.S. Killen, used in the Pacific in 1953 to study the effects of radiation, was a target in Vieques before being sunken in shallow waters less than a kilometer offshore.

The Navy also used the seas near the Vieques to dump hundreds of barrels of unknown contents, now leaking into the waters the children of Vieques learn to swim in, and from which the fishermen take the staple of their diets, and their livelihood.

The evidence of the toxic effects of the Navy activities in Vieques is overwhelming.

The cancer rate in Vieques is 27% higher in Vieques than in Puerto Rico’s other 77 municipalities, according to Puerto Rico Department of Health statistics. It is highest in the age group of those who have been exposed to the Navy’s activities from before birth and continuing for several decades. Rates of cancer morbidity are also much higher in Vieques than in other municipalities for similar kinds of cancer.

In addition to cancer, rates of heart disease, asthma and diabetes are significantly higher in Vieques than in the rest of Puerto Rico.

A recent survey conducted by the public school system in Vieques revealed that over half of the children of Vieques have significant health problems. In warm dry climates with constant ocean breezes, asthma is rare. In Vieques, it is common, even in very young children.

There is no source of pollution in Vieques other than the US Navy.

Toxic residues of six decades of military activity have literally poisoned the air, water, soil, animal and plant life.

One of the Navy’s own studies shows that every sample of drinking water in Vieques (other than the test sample of bottled water) was contaminated with RDX (Cyclonite), a toxic compound found in the high explosives dropped on the island.

According to a 1994, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study, the coastal waters of Vieques contain excessive concentrations of cyanide, cadmium, chromium, mercury, arsenic, and lead. These substances do not occur naturally in Vieques, but are contained in bombs, artillery shells and military vehicles used as targets.

Independent studies conducted over the last four years by various universities and laboratories in Puerto Rico and the United States, including the Mayo Clinic, reveal dangerous concentrations of heavy metals the water, vegetable and animal life in Vieques.

Cadmium, arsenic, cobalt, nickel, and lead, found in abnormal concentration in sea grasses, are also found in soil and in crabs, an abundant source of food for other species, including human beings. The concentration of cadmium in crabs in Icacos Lagoon in Vieques was 1,000 times higher than the World Health Organization’s “tolerable ingestion maximum dosage.”

Cadmium and arsenic are carcinogenic (see below # 1)

Infant mortality, one of the most reliable indicators of the health of a population, has been decreasing in Puerto Rico for the last 50 years. In Vieques, it has been increasing since 1980, and is now 55% higher than in Puerto Rico, with a rate of 19.9 per 1000 live births as opposed to 12.8 in the rest of Puerto Rico.

Dra. Carmen Ortz Roque, an epidemiologist trained at Harvard University, who has conducted much original research on the health situation in Vieques, has concluded:

It is evident that the human population of Vieques has been exposed to and metabolized toxic substances that are generated by the military activities of the Navy. The mere presence of toxic levels of mercury constitutes a disease as it becomes a burden to the target organs: the brain, the cardiovascular system, the kidney and, most tragically, to the developing fetus… Human exposure to other carcinogenic substances such as dioxins, RDX, napalm, . . . and others have not yet been studied in Vieques.

Dominicans for Justice and Peace, in conjunction with Franciscans International, calls upon the UN Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights

  • to place the issue of the toxic legacy of the U.S. military activities in Vieques on its urgent agenda,
  • to express its concern for its impact on the rights to health, development, and the environment, and
  • to urge the United States to:
    1. fully and adequately compensate individual victims;
    2. guarantee citizen participation in the decisions about clean-up and future use of the lands of Vieques;
    3. remove all toxic wastes from the lands and seas of Vieques and institute a program of remediation adequate to make all but the irremediably contaminated areas, if any, fit for human use and enjoyment;
    4. after adequate clean-up, return all the expropriated lands to the people of Vieques, and compensate the government of Puerto Rico and the municipality of Vieques for any irremediably contaminated lands.

Additional information:

1. Cadmium and arsenic are carcinogenic

Cadmium, mercury and lead are associated with heart disease, which, along with hypertension, is also higher in Vieques than comparable municipalities of Puerto Rico–despite the fact that, in marked contrast to areas like metropolitan San Juan with significant environmental stress, Vieques is still a small town with no traffic, no traffic lights and no urban noise.

Mercury and lead also cause damage to the lungs, bone and blood, the nervous system, the skin, and the developing fetus. Mercury and arsenic were detected in abnormal concentration in local fish.

A sample of hair collected from Viequenses of all ages in 1999 revealed 34% had toxic levels of mercury, 55% were contaminated with lead; 69% with arsenic and cadmium, and 90% with aluminum, also a carcinogenic.

A separate random study showed 44% had toxic levels of mercury, which increased with age. 83% of all civilians who worked for the Navy in Vieques had toxic levels of mercury.

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