Original ATSDR Petition
February 2000 update
ATSDR Friend of Foe?


In May of 1999, the U.S. government was formally petitioned to carry out a health study of Isla de Vieques. The concerns articulated in my original petition have become even more pressing as a result of President Clinton’s inexplicable decision to resume bombing.

The President seeks a referendum of the people of Vieques, to decide their children’s future, without first presenting indisputable information about the nature and extent of the health risks associated with military activity on Vieques. Democratic principles demand that any decision made by the people be an informed decision, especially when they are asked to expose themselves and their children to unknown dangers.

The ATSDR has been moving forward, albeit slowly, toward the requested study. Last month I asked the ATSDR Vieques Study team for some very specific actions and I want to share their reply with all of you. Although this agency does not sample soil, water, air and food, they specify what studies are needed and how they should be done by the responsible government agencies.

Gordon Rumore Ferris RN, EHS
Community Health Advocate
Isla Nena

The Original Petition To ATSDR for Public Health Assessment (abridged)

On this 14th day of May, 1999, the undersigned hereby formally petitions the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) of the United States Public Health Service to undertake an investigation and assessment of a clear, immediate and profound risk to the health of the 9400 inhabitants of Isla de Vieques, Puerto Rico.

The entire at risk population is subjected to toxic chemicals resulting from the detonation, deflagration and decomposition of military ordnance only ten miles from the inhabited area. The site has received thousands of tons of Tetryl, RDX and HMX, over the past fifty years, as well as unknown military ordnance agents. Exposure occurs by the pathways and mechanisms suggested in the ATSDR Toxicological Profiles for the above named agents.

The daily disturbance of the grossly contaminated soils in the impact area, by the explosion of live bombs, missiles and shells, produces immense dust clouds which are carried by the prevailing winds to the populated area, less than ten miles downwind. Completed exposure pathways include inhalation of dusts, ingestion of dusts and ingestion of contaminated ground water and rain water used as an emergency water supply.


This update reflects the questions and recommendations posed to ATSDR on February 18, 1999. It came from Emilio Gonzalez PE, the team leader of the Vieques ATSDR study team.

Dear Gordon: I understand that Dr. Gary Campbell and Maria Teran-MacIver briefed you on our current plans and activities by telephone on Friday, February 18. This e-mail will summarize issues discussed in that call…Your requests were (as follows):

GORDON/VIEQUES: Please indicate ATSDR’s current understanding of the petitioners stated “facts and observations”. (in the original petition)

EMILIO/ATSDR: We agree in general with your stated “facts and observations”. We cannot at this time definitively state that particles would reach the communities, however, we agree with you that strong winds appear to be blowing in that direction.

GORDON/VIEQUES: Specify an immediate need for environmental sampling to create a risk model based on downwind distribution of toxic dusts, detritus and particulates. EPA and DOD need a mandate to do physical sampling of soil and water.

EMILIO/ATSDR: ATSDR has been working to identify any sources of environmental information from past or planned activities of both EPA and DOD. After our site visit in (August) 1999, sampling has been carried out by EPA and DOD. We have requested that information for air, soil and groundwater (see # 2 for groundwater). DOD has developed an air dispersion model using contaminant assumptions based on literature values. We have requested that document as a starting point in our evaluation efforts. In addition, we have begun discussions with the Navy to gather soil samples for analysis on the impact area. That information is important to validate or change assumptions on any air model that is used. The issue in getting the appropriate impact area soil sampling is that of safety. Before any unexploded ordnance clearing is carried out to be able to obtain the soil samples, the safety of the civilians occupying the range must be considered. We will work hard to obtain samples as soon as the safety issues are resolved.

GORDON/VIEQUES: Specify an immediate need to sample the emergency ground water supplies before the need to use this supply emerges. EPA and DOD need a mandate to do physical sampling of drinking water.

EMILIO/ATSDR: We discussed the need to sample the emergency ground water supplies to all agencies we met with at the time of our site visit. As you are aware, EPA has sampled those wells. We are currently waiting the results of testing for explosives substances in the water. We will evaluate that information as soon as possible.

GORDON/VIEQUES: Specify the need to test fish and other food taken from the marine environment. Especially, the testing of crabs and sea snails for heavy metals. EPA , USDA and DOD need a mandate to do physical sampling of marine foods.

EMILIO: We agree that the aquatic food chain pathway will need to be evaluated. One component of that evaluation is to determine the specific chemicals that have the potential to be in the aquatic pathway. We hope to gain that information through analysis of soils on the impact range as discussed above. In the meantime we have discussed the food chain pathway with the agencies we met with during the site visit. We will be continuing to evaluate the aquatic food chain pathway and work with various agencies to obtain the needed information.

GORDON/VIEQUES: Specifically recommend that soils in the inner range not be disturbed until actual exposure data is collected and evaluated. President Clinton needs factual evidence regarding the level of risk to the Vieques population and ATSDR is the appropriate agency to provide this risk assessment.

EMILIO: As discussed above, an opportunity may be available to collect impact area samples when the range is being prepared for resuming the training exercises. We have discussed with the Navy our desire to collect and analyze those samples as soon as possible. Soil sampling from the impact area itself may not, however, be enough to evaluate whether disturbance of the dirt poses a health problem to the communities. In all likelihood, the findings from soil sampling will need to be included in an air model to determine exposure to communities. ATSDR does not have control over any decision by the Navy or others about the time frame for resuming training.

Again, we thank you for the interest you have shown in the Health issues for the residents of Vieques and for the assistance you have provided in locating information and contacts within the community.

Gracias, Emilio

If you have questions or recommendations about the proposed plan of action, please contact Mr. Emilio Gonzalez, Environmental Engineer, at telephone (404) 639-6049 or Mr. Arthur Block, ATSDR Senior Representative, Region II in New York, at telephone (212) 637-4307. Community members may also contact ATSDR by calling our toll-free telephone number, 1-888-42ATSDR (1­888-422-8737).”

ATSDR Friend or Foe?

In reply to a question concerning the agency

I have worked along side ATSDR for many years, as a state public health official. I will give you my honest opinion of the agency.


Many environmental and health advocacy groups are critical of the ATSDR's findings in most of the studies they have carried out, because ATSDR rarely finds any causual relationship between human illness and environmental toxics.

The agency is extremely conservative in their findings because they must show absolute scientific connections between environmental contamination and illness.

Illness' such as cancer can have multiple causes and it is almost impossible to prove absolute causation from a specific toxic agent.

SO, why bother with ATSDR?

Because that same logical and conservative science will reliably discover just what toxins and carcinogens are present in the soil, water, air and food of Vieques! The excellent quality control and quality assurance of the sampling and laboratory analysis will be accepted by any government agency or court of law without question.

ATSDR is also concerned about the total public health picture of Vieques including prenatal health of mothers, SIDA, mental health, community health education, analysis of previous epidemiological studies and health recommendations for the future. These needs will have still have to be addressed long after the navy is no more than an unpleasant memory on Vieques.

To be sure, ATSDR is slower than molasses in norteamerica, but they are the only game in town capable of utilizing the vast financial and scientific resources of the federal government to provide a definitive toxic profile of the Vieques environment.

I serve my beloved isla nena by finding the infinite patience needed to motivate ATSDR to do what must be done on Vieques, both by helping them to know the isla better and poking them with a "sharp stick" to get their full attention.

Not everyone will accept the ATSDR's final interpretative analysis of the relationship between Navy environmental pollution and illness on Vieques, but the actual scientific evidence gathered and made public will be of inestimable value to every person who cares about the health and future of Vieques.

I will continue in my own plodding patient scientist way to do what must be done, but I want to remind you that President Clinton is NOT a "conservative scientist" who can be EXCUSED from taking IMMEDIATE ACTION based upon obvious "COMMON SENSE". He is a political scholar, portraying himself as a liberal humanist, and THE President of the United States; he is responsible for prevention of "threats; domestic and foreign" to the people.

La pregunta más importante es: ¿Porque el Presidente de los EE.UU. permite el resumen de bombardero en la Isla de Vieques SIN evaluar el efecto en la salud pública?

Gordon Rumore Ferris RN/EA, EHS
Public Health Nurse and Community Health Advocate
Isla Nena

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