Wansolwara News

Vol. 5 No. 2
June 2000

Page 10

 

INSIGHT REPORT
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 issue.

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,” she said.

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 out.

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.


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