Vieques and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

Earlier this month, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (part of the Health and Humans Services Department) changed its mind about earlier findings that decades of explosive detonations by the Navy on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques posed no health hazards to residents.

The agency is facing tough scrutiny from Congress and the threat of reform legislation, with some lawmakers accusing it of cursory evaluations that often get the science wrong and ignore independent studies and community complaints. The House Science and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight found that the agency produced “deeply flawed” scientific reports.

Created in 1980 as part of the legislation establishing the Superfund program, which administers the cleanup of the nation’s worst contaminated sites, the toxic substances agency evaluates the health risks at Superfund sites and carries out consultations in other cases of contamination. Its findings, based on available research and its own investigations, often determine the kind of treatment and compensation victims receive from polluters and the government.

In Vieques, Puerto Rico, the toxic substances agency concluded in 2003 that the levels of heavy metals and explosive compounds found in the soil, groundwater, air and fish did not pose a health risk. But after meeting with residents of Vieques and scientists who had done research on the island, the agency reversed course, saying it had identified gaps in environmental data that could be important in determining health effects and calling for additional monitoring. John Wargo, a professor of environmental risk analysis at Yale University recommended rescinding the conclusion of no hazard in the case of Vieques, explaining that “The absence of proof doesn’t prove safety, and that’s where I think they are off base.” Local studies show unusually high rates of cancer, hypertension, and other illnesses; most of the nearly 10,000 island residents have sued in federal court to seek compensation and health benefits from the Navy. Robert Rabin, a community activist on the island and director of the Vieques Fortín Museum, welcomed this month’s announcement as a potential turning point, saying that residents were now “cautiously optimistic” that their health claims might be settled.

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