Cancer surge on bomb
Home• History• Navy History
US forces have trained in Vieques for 60 years
Sunday, 4 February, 2001, 07:53 GMT
By Matthew Chapman on Vieques
The residents of a Caribbean island used as a
bombing range are claiming more than $100m in
damages from the US Navy over claims that
ammunition including depleted uranium (DU)
shells have caused an epidemic of cancers
More than a third of the 9,000 inhabitants of
Vieques have been found to be suffering from
a range of serious illnesses and cancers, which
doctors have linked to decades of bombing by
the US and the military of other countries
including the British Royal Navy.
According to official
Puerto Rican figures,
cancer rates on the
island are soaring, with
the numbers of people
suffering from cancer of
the breast, cervix and
uterus up by 300% over
the past 20 years.
The court case brought by the islanders will be
closely watched by the governments of Nato
countries which sent troops to Kosovo and the
Gulf War where the use of DU shells has been
linked with leukaemia cases.
The island of Vieques is just 30km long and
6km wide and lies within sight of mainland
Puerto Rico. For the past 60 years its
population has been sandwiched into a strip of
land in between some of the world's busiest
Campaigners on the
island made an order
through the Freedom of
Information Act to
force the Navy to
publicly admit it had
fired DU shells onto a
range on the eastern
tip of the island in
The Navy said this was
done by mistake after
the wrong ammunition
was loaded onto a
fighter jet and they made efforts to recover
the radioactive shell casings afterwards. But,
they they only managed to find around 50 of
Scientists, however, who have conducted soil
samples on the ranges say they have found
evidence of systematic bombing with DU shells
going back at least a decade.
A Mississippi-based law
firm John Arthur Eaves,
which specialises in
class action law suits
pollution, has brought
together 3,600 islanders
suffering from illnesses
it says are linked to the
decades of bombing on
Vieques and the use of
"I think $100m may turn out to be at the lower
end of the scale of what we might get from
the Navy," John Arthur Eaves Jnr said.
"We have already spent $7m on preparing this
case which we wouldn't have done if we didn't
think we had a very good chance of winning."
One of the plaintiffs on
the island is
Garcia, who is only 32
but looks nearer 50.
His test results show
him to be contaminated
with a bewildering
range of heavy metals,
the most worrying to
him being uranium.
"I had never heard of
uranium before this,"
he said, "but now it
looks like it might kill me."
He thinks he may have been exposed when he
worked on the bombing range itself,
maintaining military buildings.
Every hair on his body has dropped off and he
now walks in slow shuffling steps, making a
tremendous effort just to cross his living room.
Yet there are others on
the island showing high
levels of uranium in
their bodies who have
never been on the
They are thought to
have picked up heavy
metals blown off the
bombing ranges by the strong easterly winds
which regularly sweep across this island.
Although the Navy maintains that several
hundred DU shells would not be enough to
constitute a health hazard, scientists claim to
have found signs of far greater use of the
"They say the shells were used on target tanks
on one particular spot on the bombing range,"
said Jorge Fernandez, an environmental expert
on the mainland of Puerto Rico.
"But when we made soil samples we found nine
separate spots, all over the hundreds of acres
of this bombing range, which showed
significant levels of uranium."
Campaigners also claim
to have identified
target tanks dating
back as far as 1991
which contained shell
holes characteristic of
the DU ammunition's
ability to burn smoothly
through armour rather
than rip it apart like
The US military as a
whole has maintained
that there is no
evidence to link the use of uranium in
weaponry to any illnesses among troops.
"Stories of cancers and illness are just part of
a campaign of misinformation by those opposed
to our presence on the island," said US Navy
Commander John Carerra.
"We are talking about very small amounts of
depleted uranium and we have done our
utmost to make sure it is cleared away."