Inside Story America

The US legacy on Vieques

Are cancer, birth defects, and diseases the lasting legacy of US weapons use on the Puerto Rican island?

On the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, residents cite cancer, birth defects and diseases as the lasting legacy of decades of US weapons use there. But 10 years after the bombings stopped, the US refuses to acknowledge a link.

For more than 60 years, the idyllic Caribbean island was used as a practice ground for US Navy weapons, turning more than half of it into a no-go zone. The island of 10,000 struggled for decades to get its land back.

        Watch our special report on Vieques

On May 1, 2003, the US government ended bombing on Vieques. Bunkers that once held thousands of bombs were shuttered, and land used by the military was converted into nature reserves. But a decade after this major victory, Vieques remains an island in trouble.

Islanders suffer significantly higher rates of cancer and other illnesses than the rest of Puerto Rico, something they attribute to the decades of weapons use.

But a report released in March by the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the federal agency in charge of investigating toxic substances, said it found no such link.

“The people of Vieques are very sick, not because they were born sick, but because their community was sickened as a result of many factors, and one of the most important is the contamination they was subjected to for more than 60 years. These people have a higher rate of cancer, of hypertension, of kidney failure,” Carmen Ortiz-Roque, an epidemiologist and obstetrician, told Al Jazeera.

For more than 60 years, the Navy was bombing us with many poisons, napalm, agent orange, depleted uranium and many other things, some of which we may never know definitively.

by Norma Torres Sanes, a civil disobedient in the fight against foreign military presence in Vieques

“The women of child bearing age in Vieques are drastically more contaminated than the rest of the women in Puerto Rico …. 27 percent of the women in Vieques we studied had sufficient mercury to cause neurological damage in their unborn baby,” she added.

Vieques has a 30 percent higher rate of cancer than the rest of Puerto Rico, and nearly four times the rate of hypertension.

“Here there is every type of cancer – bone cancer, tumors. Skin cancer. Everything. We have had friends who are diagnosed and two or three months later, they die. These are very aggressive cancers,” said Carmen Valencia, of the Vieques Women’s Alliance.

Vieques has only a basic health care with a birthing clinic and an emergency room. There are no chemotherapy facilities, and the sick must travel hours by ferry or plane for treatment.

Seafood, which is an important part of the diet – making up roughly 40 percent of the food eaten on the island, is also at risk.

“We have bomb remnants and contaminants in the coral, and it’s clear that that type of contamination passes onto the crustaceans, to the fish, to the bigger fish that we ultimately eat. Those heavy metals in high concentrations can cause damage and cancer in people,” Elda Guadalupe, an environmental scientist, explained.

Watch our special interview with poet and activist Norma Torres Sanes

But the ATSDR said it could find no relationship between mercury in fish and military operations on Vieques.

So, will the US government accept any responsibility? And what solutions can the islanders implement to tackle this health situation?

Inside Story Americas travelled to Vieques to produce a special report on the ongoing environmental issues and health crisis there.

Together with presenter Shihab Rattansi, we discuss the crisis with guests: Katherine McCaffrey, a professor of anthropology at Montclair University, who has also written a book on the military presence in Vieques; James Barton a munitions expert and co-author of a report on the ecological, radiological, and toxicological effects of naval bombardment on Vieques.

Representatives from the ATSDR declined to appear on the show.

“The navy was up to full scale operations, that included NATO participants, for many years. The concern for exposing the residents to the toxic plume generated as a result of the prevailing trade winds was never taken into consideration and are still not taken into consideration as open detonation continues to this day for disposals operations when there are technological alternatives.” 

– James Barton, a munitions expert and co-author of a report on the ecological, radiological, and toxicological effects of naval bombardment on Vieques


The US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry issued this statement to Inside Story Americas:

“For more than a decade, ATSDR has been concerned for the health of Vieques residents and involved in evaluation of potential health hazards related to the Navy’s past military activities on the Island of Vieques. ATSDR appreciates that the people of Vieques still have questions about the effects of environmental contamination from military operations on the island and their health. To respond to these concerns, ATSDR evaluated its previous findings at Vieques. ATSDR carefully and critically reviewed these data, including studies conducted by persons outside of ATSDR.”

“Based on available data, there is no indication that past military activities have caused exposure to high levels of contamination. ATSDR looked at information about contaminants in air, water, soil, plants, and marine seafood; medical tests to measure the amount of chemicals in residents’ bodies; and reports about health conditions, new cancer cases, and deaths. Even though we looked specifically for a link, our review of these data could not find a link between military activities and human exposure.”

“ATSDR recommends that public health officials look into ways to develop more reliable population-based statistics for conditions like asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other chronic diseases on Vieques using an existing health survey such as the Behavioral Risk Factors Surveillance System. ATSDR will provide laboratory and other technical support if a biomonitoring investigation is conducted.”

“ATSDR considers our evaluation complete at this time. However, if public health issues arise or additional studies are conducted, we could evaluate addition data and information.”


The US Navy issued this statement to Inside Story Americas about Vieques:

“The US Navy has been working with the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to clean the former Navy range which covers approximately 15,000 acres, and much of this area contains few or no munitions. To date more than 2,500 acres have been cleared which accounts for approximately 17 million pounds of scrap metal removed and more than 38,000 munitions items destroyed.”

“The Navy requested the assistance of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), an agency of the US Department of Health and Human Services, to investigate the alleged contamination in Vieques. After studying the four pathways (Groundwater, Soil, Fish/Crabs, and Air) that would most likely result in exposure to contaminants, ATSDR released a number of Public Health Assessments (PHAs) in the summer and fall of 2003 and concluded there were no health risks to the residents of the island.”

“In 2009, ATSDR again investigated whether there were any health hazards associated with the Navy’s use of Vieques. In December 2011, ATSDR released its summary report for public comment and, in March 2013, reaffirmed its findings that there is no scientific evidence of any health hazards associated with the Navy’s use of Vieques.”