An Unhealthy Alliance

(This is the second half of a two-part series.)

TWICE A YEAR, The Department of Energy (DOE) goes to Micronesia to take toll of the damage caused by the repeated explosion of nuclear weaponry in the Marshall Islands. Usually the examinations involve a checking of thyroid glands, Darlene Keju, a Marshallese says, but only those who were around during the explosion of a 1954 hydrogen bomb are examined. "They are only interested in studies using us as guinea pigs," Keju says, adding that the recent generations of Marshallese are used as a control group for the tests.

Historical evidence supports these claims by Keju, a long-time activist on behalf of the Micronese. The story of the Japanese fisherman on the "Lucky Dragon" vessel is well known. The 1954 Bravo surface detonation of the 15-megaton bomb left the customary ash that accompanies fallout. Shortly afterwards several of the men experienced nausea, vomiting and itching skin--common symptoms of radiation exposure. Several crew members eventually fell ill and died. The U.S. government gave $2 million in compensation to the Japanese government.

For the Marshallese, however, the story became much more complicated. Despite obvious signs of nuclear fallout confirmed by the experience of the Japanese, the people of the Bikini atoll were not evacuated from the area. Afterwards the leaders of more than 10 atolls petitioned the United Nations Trusteeship Council requesting that:

all the experiments with lethal weapons within this area be immediately ceased. If the experiments...should be judged absolutely necessary for the eventual well being of all people of this world...all possible precautionary measures to be taken (and) all human beings and their valuable possessions be transported to safe distances before such explosions occur...

Islanders did receive examinations at the Kwajalein Navy base, with doctors sending most of them back to their contaminated islands. People from the Utrik islands had received "small am-mounts of radiation (14 rads) and could therefore return home," Brookhaven National Laboratory doctors found. "Their island was only slightly contaminated and considered safe for habitation."


Since that time generations of Micronesians have shown signs of radiation exposure. In addition to the constant recurrence of children born with birth defects, retardation, and miscarriages among Micronese food supply has been drastically Instead of the typical fruit, vegetable and seafood diet once common throughout the Islands, the Micronesia from the United States. "Most of our traditional foods are contaminated," Keju says. "Our fish come out of the water already poisoned. Our fruits come out a different color and shape than they are supposed to be."

In 1966 Brookhaven doctors found that Marshallese food items from the contaminated and uninhabited Rongelap area have an "intake of strontium 90 over a seven day period [that] was twenty times higher than normal and that of cesium 137, sixty times higher than normal." Despite this information, government-sponsored examinations of islanders come only once every three years and only at certain islands. There are no centers established to deal with radiation - oriented symptoms.

Examinations of islanders are usually carried out by Brookhaven doctors, under the guidance of the Department of Energy. Micronesians do not have access to their own medical records, and independent efforts to launch medical studies have usually been disallowed by the U.S.

UNTIL RECENTLY, foreign exchange and investment with countries other than the U.S. was also prohibited. Most of the island economies are totally dependent on U.S. capital. Paradoxically, however, western-style modernization also poses threats to the native population; with thyroid problems and cancerous growths, the Marshallese and other islanders are affected by high blood pressure and diabetes and other illnesses previously rare to Micronese citizens.

Programs already poorly implemented in the United States, such as food stamps compensation, have been exported to Micronesia--with adverse effects, since no studies were done to see whether U.S. policy would work in Micronesia. And while Micronesians pledge allegiance to the United States flag and are eligible for U.S. university scholarships, they have no voice in U.S. government. The Peace Corps also has several groups assigned to Micronesia. The result, says Giff Johnson, a U.S. journalist and activist is "an extension of American values through Micronesia a way to hide the conflicting strategic interests that go with the Trusteeship."

The Nuclear Free Pacific movement has nevertheless struggled to keep Micronesia in the American political pictures. Now married, Keju and Johnson spend countless hours organizing, teaching and talking about Micronesia and its relationship to the United States, and about the health quality of islanders living in Micronesia.

Johnson has also written extensively on the subject of militarization of the Pacific for the Nation and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

Together with Keju, a public health specialist, Johnson says an independent research survey of health conditions in Micronesia is underway. It is the first such study, outside of the DOE and some more limited attempts by Japanese scientists, to find evidence of the true health conditions of Micronesians.

MEANWHILE, many of the islands are working toward free association, which would give them greater economic aid in exchange for, in some causes, specific military rights for the U.S. The Mariana Islands on Micronesia now have commonwealth status.

At the same time, the islands of Micronesia, once a string of paradises in the Pacific, have learned first hand the workings of U.S. democracy at its worst. Says Keju, "We believed in the altruism of the situation and found later we were being mislead. We have found that freedom isn't free. You've got to pay the price. But you have to remember, the Marshallese have no word for enemy."