Monday, April 15, 2024

Cancer Rates Higher in a Town in Puerto Rico due to High Levels of Contamination in the Air

Salinas, Puerto Rico, is an industrial town on Puerto Rico’s southeast coast that is considered one of the U.S. territory’s most contaminated regions. Toxic ash and harmful chemicals from coal-fired and thermoelectric power plants surround this community, and residents have complained about health problems ranging from cancer to Alzheimer’s.

“We’re fighting a lot of battles,” said José Santiago, a 74-year-old retiree, about the announcement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proclaiming Salinas has one of the highest concentrations of ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing gas. In a U.S. jurisdiction.

According to the island’s Central Registry of Cancer, Salinas has the highest incidence rate of cancer in Puerto Rico, with 140 cases reported in 2019. Salinas’ neighboring town, Guayama, has seen an increase in cancer and other diseases since the coal-fired power plant began operating there in 2002, said Dr. Gerson Jiménez, director of the Menonite Hospital who has testified in public hearings and called for the closure of the plant.

“Medical doctors who work in the southeast area of Puerto Rico have noticed that since the AES Corporation began operating in Guayama, there has been a significant increase in diseases of the respiratory tract and urinary tract, as well as a significant increase in diagnoses of various types of cancer,” he testified at one hearing.

The level of contamination has prompted the EPA to test the air and groundwater in Puerto Rico’s southeast region. Considering Salinas is nestled between the coal-burning power plant, two of the largest thermoelectric plants, and other industries, styrene and ethylene oxide, a carcinogenic gas, are the top two chemicals released into the air and water in Salinas, officials say. Salinas and Guayama also have sulfur dioxide levels that exceed new standards.

Steri-Tech, a company using ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment, is in Salinas. The chemical is a colorless, flammable gas with a slightly sweet odor and is used to sterilize 20 billion medical devices a year. The EPA says long-term or lifetime exposure to the gas can cause lymphoma, breast cancer, and other illnesses.

Steri-Tech reported two explosions — one in October and the other earlier this month — that frightened residents and raised concerns about whether any toxic chemicals were released.

“My house shook!” said Lillian Melero, a 60-year-old retiree who recalled that the explosion broke a neighbor’s windows. Melero said she wants answers from federal officials about the contamination in her town. “They write down a lot of things, but I haven’t seen any changes,” she said.

Community leader Wanda Ríos said several people in La Margarita, a neighborhood of some 100 people sitting next to Steri-Tech, have died of cancer.

NBC News