Clark residents in real danger of toxic contamination
by Gina Mission

Interview with a Health for All study respondent.

two-year study of seven areas in the former US Clark Air Base has come to the conclusion: "There is toxic contamination in Clark." The study, Health for All , was conducted through the collaborative efforts of the People’s Task Force for Bases Cleanup (PTFBC) and Canada-based International Institute of Concern for Public Health (IICPH). Right in the bodies of the residents of the place.

___Using 751 women and children respondents selected through random sampling, the study used the non-traditional approach of determining toxic contamination in the former US base in the Philippines. "This study is not based on the medical case-control clinical studies which uses the ‘test group’ and ‘control group’," explained Dr. Rosalie Bertell, IICPH president and principal investigator of the study.

___"The counterpart of this methodology would be an ecological study where the health of people located in a suspected toxic area is compared with that of people living in an area thought to be non-toxic," Bertell said. This method, she added, is the weakest type of population-based epidemiological study. For one, "contamination" of the land is not equivalent to "exposure" of the people. There are, she said, many contaminated sites identified in the former Air Force base, but no real evidence that at this moment in time all of these sites have had an impact on the health of the people living on or near the base.

___An alternative, more fruitful approach in determining the health problems of the people as caused by the toxic contamination, Bertell says, would be to reverse the earlier methodology. "Instead of trying to study ‘exposed’ against ‘not exposed’ for differences in health, one can study ‘sick’ against ‘not sick’ for differences in exposure," she states.

___Until Bertell’s study, no government study had closely looked into the health of Clark residents despite suspicions of deep toxic contamination, and despite the fact that people living in or near the area have developed diseases which many people have attributed to toxic contamination. Environmental investigations conducted in the former military base, according to PTFBC, were only focused on how pollution might affect the re-use of the area into economic zones. While sympathizing with the residents’ sad plight, Foreign Affairs Secretary Domingo Siazon told complainants to "get complete data first" before demanding that the United States government take responsibility for the comprehensive investigation and cleanup of toxic wastes in Clark and in the former Subic Naval Base.

___It will be recalled that in 1992, US Embassy spokesperson Morton Smith dismissed as "hearsay evidence" the report of the US General Accounting Office (GAO) to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee stating that Air Force and Navy officials acknowledged environmental contamination of "Superfund proportions" at both Clark and Subic bases. "Superfund" sites refer to the worst of the worst contaminated sites in the US.

___In 1993, when pressure from Philippine and US NGOs were at its peak, the US Department of Defense released a partial report on Clark and Subic identifying known and potentially contaminated sites.

___Preliminary water sampling in 1994 at CABCOM, an area in Subic, revealed concentration levels of oil, grease, and cadmium above the maximum permissible level. In 1997, the Clark Development Corporation (CDC) released a two-page summary of the Weston International Environmental Baseline Survey at Clark which identified 12 activity centers of varying contamination. Expectedly, CDC refused to disclose the full result of the study to the public. But when PTFBC received a copy of the study from outside sources, the truth was unveiled: it recommended that 75 per cent of the sites be further investigated for soil and groundwater contamination.

___When Bertell, in October 1997, revealed initial evidence of a high level of kidney diseases and symptoms of kidney problems in the area surrounding Clark, which she noted to be connected to both water and air exposures, Siazon, according to PTFBC, told them that he would only believe in the seriousness of the problem if people are already trembling from the effects of mercury.

___On July 1998, Greenpeace International presented Clark Air Force Base to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) as one of the world’s "hotspots" because of the "high levels of persistent organic pollutants found in and around the area."

___As expressed in a New York Times editorial on December 25, 1998: "When the United States pulled out of the Clark and Subic Bay bases in the Philippines beginning in 1991, it left dozens of sites where toxic chemicals and asbestos had been dumped or buried in unsecured landfills. These may now be the cause of disease among people living nearby. Washington has paid the Philippines nothing for cleanup and has released only perfunctory information about the hazards."

___A group of medical experts hired by CDC, however, claimed that toxic waste does not trigger the incidence of diseases, premature births, and birth defects in the surrounding areas of Clark Special Economic Zone (CSEZ).

___Such claim, according to Bertell and Dr. Theodore Schettler of the Boston Medical Center, is erroneous, adding that "no comprehensive study has been done to characterize the contamination of Clark and the health of the surrounding communities. Basic principles of public health practice, Schettler said, "require that the community be supplied with a safe, clean water supply and not long-drawn-out epidemiological study." As Bertell pointed out, "there is no evidence that the contamination does not cause a significant proportion of the observed ill health effect."

___This same erroneous claim, as well as the growing clamor from environment NGOs, prompted PTFBC and IICPH to conduct the Health for All study. "Our logic is simple," explained Bertell during the recent presentation of the study results. "We try to show the effect of toxic contamination to the people’s health by comparing the health of those who are "exposed" to toxic hazards with those who are not."

___Their message for the government, she said, is that diseases occur because of the presumed toxic contamination. Conversely, without the contamination, there wouldn’t be a high occurrence of such diseases. "Take them out of the area, or provide them with clean water supply, and see if they will still have the same illnesses," Bertell said.

___The study found that the respondents who come from different areas developed different kinds of illnesses. Women from the areas of Sapang Bato, Margot and Macapagal in Angeles City and the Cabcom evacuation center, Poblacion and San Joaquin in Mabalacat recorded the highest percentage of problems in the kidney, urinary tract, nervous system and feminine health.

___Poblacion and San Joaquin tallied the highest miscarriage rate. Sapang Bato, Margot and Macapagal reported the highest serious growth disturbances. Problems with nervous system, mouth, nose and throat, eye and ear, head and neck, skin, immune and endocrine systems were highest in Cabcom.

___Compared to those from other areas, women from Mawaque and Madapdap had lower rates of health problems. However, children from these areas topped the highest weight and height deficiencies.

___PTFB released an illustrated map of the study area tracing toxic contaminants coming from the base’s Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office, Fire Department Training Area, Control Corrosion Area, Hospital, Fuel System Repair, Power Plant, Motor Pool, Jet Engine Test Office, Civil Engineering Entomology, California Bus Line, Mabalacat Landfill, and Wagner Aviation.

___According to Bertell, the health problems experienced by the respondents proved that soil, air and water in the area offer "more than bacterial hazard."

___Without discounting the social, environmental, physiological, and economic factors, Bertell said the health problems are "a complex combination of the social disruption caused by the Mt. Pinatubo eruption, and the effects of the exposure to toxic materials and living conditions."

___Among its urgent recommendations, the study called for "urgent soil decontamination," "provision of clean drinking water," and "special provisions for those families which have been traumatized by volcano eruption and evacuation."

___Resumption of regular air flights using the Clark landing field, is not recommended until "some provision for moving residents away from the flight part region is accomplished." Jet fuel, Bertell said, contains lead, and this is always accumulated on the flight path, aggravating the already "contaminated soil." Moreover, the noise of jet planes is contraindicated for those currently suffering from nervous disorders and post-traumatic stress.

___To the delight of the residents, the local governments of Angeles and Mabalacat began rationing bottled water, pressing private water firms nearby to do radiological tests at the same time, immediately after the public presentation of the study findings.

___But then again, the long-term solution to the problem, as Bertell stressed, could not be found in emptied bottles of water. Above all, the US has to daccept its responsibility of cleaning up its former military bases – for good.


Photo courtesy of People’s Task Force for Bases Cleanup (PTFBC)

CyberDyaryo | 1999.03.04