Report Of Toxic Fish In Kwajalein Lagoon Brings Calls To Action From RMI

Senator To U.S.: This is ‘a public health concern of epic proportion that we cannot take lightly’

By Giff Johnson 

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, June 10, 2016) – Chemical contamination of fish at Kwajalein Atoll “is a public health concern of epic proportion that we cannot take lightly,” Kwajalein Sen. David Paul said Wednesday before this week’s annual Marshall Islands-United States defense consultation in Majuro.

Paul and other Marshall Islands officials called for action on the contamination issue at the Joint Committee Meeting or JCM, which annually addresses defense-related issues, particularly those affecting the U.S. Army operated Reagan Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll. Kwajalein is an important missile defense base, which is used as a target for missiles launched from California and from submarines, and also launches interceptor rockets against the incoming missiles.

The Army issued draft reports in 2014 that identified significant levels of PCBs — polychlorinated biphenyls — a cancer-causing chemical used in electrical transformers and other industrial products. Army scientists concluded that because Marshall Islanders eat the “whole of fish,” and eat a lot of fish, human health risks for islanders who work at the Army base dramatically exceed U.S. safety standards — particularly for fish found in the Army harbor and near the base landfill, which were popular fishing spots, until the Army banned fishing in response to the reports.

The Marshall Islands has engaged the International Atomic Energy Agency to assist with studying the problem of chemical-contaminated fish, not only at the Army base but at other islands in this western Pacific nation.

“Health risks for fish caught (at the base) may exceed U.S. standards by hundreds of times,” said Marshall Islands Environmental Protection Authority General Manager Moriana Phillip. She sounded the alarm late last year when the Army issued the draft reports, but with the country in the midst of a national election, the issue didn’t gain traction with the government. That appears to have changed Paul, Foreign Minister John Silk and others lending weight to the issue during the defense talks.

Both the draft Army reports and Marshall Islands EPA have declared the level of health risks to Marshall Islanders to be unacceptable, said Phillip. “These studies are a very grave concern and the level of risk is clearly unacceptable.”

The U.S. report sampled a wide variety of species, including unicorn fish, snappers, wrasses, trigger fish, angel fish and groupers.

“Aside from public awareness of the problem, we need U.S. and Marshall Islands leaders to work out a response (to the contamination problem),” Paul said. “We need to bring in experts to address how we move forward.”

The issue of toxic fish at the Army base received major focus at the annual defense meeting in Majuro Wednesday.

The U.S. Army “studies confirmed that there were alarming health risks from fish within the lagoon,” Paul said, adding that Marshall Islanders consume large volumes of fish from their lagoons. “Studies of PCBs in humans have found increased rates of melanomas, liver cancer, gall bladder cancer, biliary tract cancer, gastrointestinal tract cancer, and brain cancer, and may be linked to breast cancer,” he added.

Paul urged the two governments to strengthen the fishing bans at the base, conduct a wider analysis of fish tissue, and conduct a comprehensive epidemiology study.

“We have taken some steps to initiate an independent epidemiology study, with capacity assistance from the International Atomic Energy Agency,” Paul said.

Phillip said discussions with IAEA are looking at a scientific evaluation of these hazards throughout the nation.

“The U.S. and the Army have taken the first step to communicate this issue, in particular to the Kwajalein leadership and the public on Ebeye Island (where about 12,000 islanders live nearby the base),” said Paul. “However, more needs to be done and we must act without further delay.”

A group of IAEA experts visited the Marshall Islands last month to see how nuclear and isotopic techniques could play a role in measuring contaminants in atoll lagoons.

With the help of nuclear-derived techniques, authorities could determine where the contaminants come from and how this pollution is affecting locals’ health and the environment, said IAEA in a statement. “What they want is the technical expertise needed to measure the size and impact of the problem,” said Johannes Corley, food safety specialist at the IAEA. “There may be a monster in the room, but the lights are off. What we are trying to do is to turn the lights on.”

The IAEA said later this year, it will train technicians in the Marshall Islands in the use of nuclear-derived techniques to track and measure contaminants in food, humans and the marine environment.

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