History in the making: Science and Vieques

Daniel Alfonso Colón-Ramos's picture


To the CienciaPR.org community, Last week four representatives from a group of seven Puerto Rican researchers (Jorge Colón, Cruz María Nazario, Carmen Ortiz Roque, Carmen Colón de Jorge, Imar Mansilla Rivera, Carlos Rodríguez Serra and Arturo Massol Deyá) visited the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) of the US Department of Health and Human Services to present their findings regarding pollution in Vieques. Armed only with their scientific findings and their knowledge, these seven researchers made history. ATSDR is a federal agency which, under the Bush administration, reported that there had been no contamination in Vieques after 60 years of military exercises by the US Navy. While the findings of the Puerto Rican researchers underwent the scrutiny of the peer-reviewed process and were published in scientific journals, the findings from ATSDR were not peer-reviewed, and the scientific discourse was secretive and murky. Unfortunately during the past few years, health and environmental policies in Vieques had been based on those flawed studies. These seven Puerto Rican scientists openly refuted the findings of ATSDR, and after some congressional pressure, the new directorship of ATSDR decided to invite the Puerto Rican researchers to Atlanta to discuss their findings. Upon meeting with these seven researchers, ATSDR retracted their conclusions from the previous studies. Coincidentally, days after the federal agency retracted their conclusions, the health department in Puerto Rico released a study that showed that the prevalence of cancer and heart disease among viequenses was disproportionately higher than the rest of Puerto Rico. Although this study concluded 3 years ago, its findings were only released by our government this week (!). I will not go into the obvious ethical implications of this cover-up. I instead just wanted to take this opportunity and recognize the historic work of these seven researchers, and members of the CienciaPR.org community. This occasion is historic because Puerto Rican scientists engaged their expertise to refute pseudoscientific findings which harmed the people of Puerto Rico. I believe that we are witnessing a new era where we have a scientific community that can search for answers that go beyond what we are told by particular interests. Health and environmental policies must be grounded in sound science and are too important to leave to transient sociopolitical and economic interests. I hope that this story inspires the creation of future alliances of Puerto Rican scientists that probe for answers regarding other policies that affect the people of Puerto Rico. Daniel A. Colón-Ramos, PhD Director, CienciaPR.org Assistant Professor of Cell Biology, Yale University Links with more information: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/14/science/earth/14vieques.html http://www.elnuevodia.com/cambiaranconclusionessobrevieques-637731.html http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/sites/vieques/