Working at the Gitmo US military base might cause cancer

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Marco Werman: Working at the US military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba could be hazardous to your health. In fact, it might cause cancer. That’s the allegation in a complaint a Navy reserve attorney filed recently with the Pentagon. It’s very difficult to link cancer to a specific environmental cause, but the complaint suggests the war court compound at Gitmo can be linked to seven recent cases of cancer, including three deaths in the last 13 months. David Rohde first reported the story for Reuters, he says a number of people who’ve worked at Gitmo, both civilian and military, are increasingly alarmed.


David Rohde: They say that the containers and tents were on top of what they believe was an area where jet fuel was dumped. It’s next to an abandoned runway that’s no longer in use in Guantanamo but they feel that jet fuel could’ve been a source of carcinogens, and then there might be asbestos in an old building that was initially used to house the trials. Detainees, they’re held in a different part of the base that’s I think a mile or so at least away. It’s a large base, about 45-square miles.


Werman: Right. I mean, proving the existence of a cancer cluster is always complex. I mean in this case, we’re talking 7 out of about 200 people. What did doctors tell you about what is normal and what is abnormal when you’re talking clusters?


Rohde: The key in terms of it being a cluster is really the age of the people that are coming down with the cancers and the kinds of cancers. If 7 people are coming down with cancer out of a group of 200 and they’re all quite young and they all have the same kind of cancer, that would show maybe a carcinogen. I don’t know the types of cancer, I don’t know the individuals with them. I am told that they’re relatively young, that most of the 7 are under 40 and that’s why people are concerned.


Werman: Right. I mean, jet fuel and asbestos, they’ve been targets in superfund site identification in the past. Will there be some kind of investigation and designation for Guantanamo?


Rohde: It’s possible. This Navy investigation came because I learned about the complaint and sent them a question, “What’s your response to the complaint?” and they immediately got back to me and said they were launching their own investigation. They said they take the health of all personnel, civilian or military, very seriously and detainees as well, so they immediately are launching this investigation and we’ll see what comes of it.


Werman: David, you know well that Guantanamo continues to be controversial for so many reasons and in recent days the American Nurses Association announced that it was going to give an award to a nurse who served at Guantanamo. Tell us about that.


Rohde: Yes, it’s a nurse who is being awarded for refusing to force feed a prisoner in Guantanamo when prisoners have gone on hunger strikes, which is often the military has forced a tube down their nose to then force feed them. This nurse, a male nurse, a career member of the Navy refused to force feed that prisoner, they felt it was against medical ethics to do that. The person is remaining anonymous because they hope to continue to serve in the Navy and eventually retire. So, the lawyer that represents that nurse is going to be getting this award. I don’t think there’s been any other case of a nurse or a medical professional on the base refusing to follow orders, so it’s a very unusual case.


Werman: Is the American Nurses Association taking a political position by giving this award?


Rohde: They are, and this is a very polarizing issue. President Obama’s floated a new plan to maybe close Guantanamo. Just this weekend, Lisa Monaco, one of his top national security aides, said they were talking about maybe moving a dozen detainees who they consider too dangerous to release to some kind of supermax prison or a military prison in the United States, and then they’re trying to speed up the release of--there’s another 52 detainees that have been cleared for release and they don’t have any countries to send them to. So it looks like Obama will whittle it down to a population of about 50, and will he, just through executive action, try to close Guantanamo--it’s one of the biggest legacy questions of his presidency.


Werman: Could the possible cancer cluster accelerate plans to close Guantanamo?


Rohde: It could. I mean, it’s another potential delay and these defense lawyers say another debacle in this entire history of Guantanamo.


Werman: It really seems, I’ve got to say, highly unlikely that Guantanamo would close at this point.


Rohde: Yes. Republicans control both houses of Congress, they’re adamant against it, they’ve passed legislation barring the transfer of detainees. So the legacy of Obama could be having promised to close Guantanamo but he’ll leave roughly 50 people there. There is about a dozen that are being tried on cases, including carrying out the 9/11 attacks, but another 40 who are deemed too dangerous to release but there’s I guess too much tainted evidence--evidence tainted by torture--we’ve talked about in the past to try those 40 and they’ll just remain there potentially.


Werman: David Rohde, an investigative reporter for Reuters. He’s just broken a story about a Navy investigation of a reported cancer cluster at the US base in Guantanamo. David, always great to speak with you. Thank you.


Rohde: Thank you.