on Pacific environment
THE BATTLE FOR HEALTH ON
SAIPAN PCB CANCERS
ALISON OFOTALAU reports on contamination at Tanapag village.
IF THERE was anyone who most felt the effects of the 20th Century super
power arms race, it would be populations in territorial countries of the
South Pacific where nuclear testing by France, the United States of America
and Britain were conducted.
From Bikini and Kwajalein atolls in the Marshall Islands, Enewetak and
Christmas Islands in Kiribati to Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls in Tahiti,
nuclear bombs and long range ballistic missiles have been tested since
World War Two ended.
Amid fears by environmental groups that the tests could cause the fragile
South Pacific atolls to disintegrate or sink, there has been concern over
the effect these could have on people’s health.
Of great concern to Greenpeace Pacific at the moment is polychlorinated
byphenyls (PCB) contamination at Tanapag village in Saipan in the Commonwealth
of the Northern Mariana Islands. CNMI is a trust territory of USA. PCB
has been known to cause nose and throat irritation, acne and rashes as
well as cancer. PCB if released into the environment could be present
in food products like milk, eggs, tree fruits, marine life, and fish.
Members of Greenpeace who visited Tanapag at the beginning of the year
said the PCB story began in the 1960s when an unknown number of transformers
were shipped to the CNMI. The then Commissioner for Tanapag village asked
if these could be used as barricades in the village.
“According to local sources, the transformers were erected around the
baseball pitch,” according to Greenpeace. “A typhoon in the 1970s scattered
the transformers and the villagers began to move them to other locations.
The transformers were used as boundary makers, roadblocks for driveways
and headstones at the cemetery. “Some transformers were broken open and
their inner lining used to decorate rooftops and cemeteries in the village.”
At the time nobody knew of the serious health problems that human exposure
to those PCB transformers could cause. And despite the CNMI government
having known about the issue since 1988, nothing was done about it until
10 years later when the US Defence Force claimed responsibility over the
Greenpeace toxic campaigner Maureen Penjueli said she could not find
any logical reason for why the US Army had decided to relocate the transformers
over to Tanapag. “That is the question I could not get anyone to answer,”
The people of Tanapag have to live with those ill-informed decisions
that were made nearly half a century ago. According to villagers, there
have been uncommon deaths and illnesses. One villager, 42-year-old Canice
Kapileo, believes his skin condition is a result of exposure to the PCB
in the environment. “My skin used to come off. Every night, for several
years, I would peel the skin off. Everytime I did that, I was in a lot
of pain and would just bleed. “So what I would do was just wait until
they came off every night and in the morning my wife would gather them,”
he says.Villagers also told stories of relatives who died of cancer.
Despite these claims, Dr Peter Green of the US Environmental Protection
Agency says there was no scientific evidence to prove PCB as a cancer-causing
substance. However, Dr Green believed more research was being carried
Greenpeace is not happy with the pace at which remedial work is being
done, and are asking if they could speed up the process before the typhoon
season which starts in July, or before the “All Souls Day” in November
when people visit the cemetery to remember their loved ones. Authorities
have been trying to keep people away from the cemetery, which has been
considered one of the most contaminated sites in Tanapag village.
Meanwhile, Aiavao Ulafala of the Forum Secretariat, said: “The Forum
endorsed the Waigani convention in 1995 to ban the importation of hazardous
waste within the South Pacific region.” He said, this had some relevance
but pointed out that Wake Island was a US territory.