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Story Publication logo May 2, 2024

Legacies of Military Contamination and a Call for Compensation for Guam


Guam and U.S. Flag

'Fanohge Guåhan: CHamoru Voices from a Militarized Colony' explores the health inequities resulting...


Robert Celestial, 66, founded the nonprofit group Pacific Association for Radiation Survivors. Image by Sara Mar. Guam, 2022.

Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero remembers playing on her family’s property as a kid in Toto, Guam. “My brother found a bomb in our yard … and I would regularly find bullets or grenades.”

Her family’s land is a Formerly Used Defense Site, meaning it used to be possessed by the U.S. Department of Defense. “Several places throughout Guam … were dump sites for the war waste,” said Leon Guerrero. In 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sent a team to survey her family’s land. “They dug up stuff [and] they sampled the soil and the water,” recalled Leon Guerrero. 

The samples revealed the presence of contaminants such as arsenic, lead, pesticides, and petroleum. The recommended course of action was to excavate and remove the top 2 feet of soil on the property. According to Roland Gutierrez at the Guam EPA, Formerly Used Defense Sites that are returned to residents need to be “almost completely clean.” But Leon Guerrero says the cleanup on her family's property was “never finished. And they’ve never come back.”  

In addition to the abandoned project, Leon Guerrero is concerned she never received information about the possible health effects from growing up on the property.

“My first child had been born with and died from a birth defect called an omphalocele, where his intestine had formed outside his body,” she said.

Although nothing could confirm if toxic environmental contamination was the cause, she couldn’t help but wonder, “Could me growing up in … this property have caused this?”

Cancer on Guam

Scientific research provides some evidence that validates Leon Guerrero’s concerns. Arsenic in soil has been linked to an increased risk of birth defects, as has lead and petroleum. But birth defects aren’t the only thing Leon Guerrero is concerned about.

“Our rates of cancer are insane,” she said, noting several people in her family who have been diagnosed with or have died from cancer. 

According to the most recent Guam Cancer Registry Report (2013-2017), cancer is the second-leading cause of death on the island. Dr. Rachael Leon Guerrero (unrelated to Victoria-Lola) has worked at the University of Guam’s Cancer Research Center for more than 15 years.

“We tend to have higher rates of liver cancer, nasopharyngeal cancer, and cervical cancer,” said Dr. Leon Guerrero. But cancer doesn’t affect all groups equally. According to the report, Indigenous CHamorus have nine times the rate of nasopharyngeal cancer compared to the rest of the U.S. population. CHamorus also have some of the highest cancer mortality rates from a variety of cancers, including lung, prostate, breast, and liver cancer.

“Not only do we have incredibly high cancer rates, we have a struggling health system where we don’t have the oncologists, we don’t have the nurses, we don’t have the facilities to treat these cancers that are likely environmentally caused by the United States’ military presence here,” explained Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero.  

Despite the high prevalence of cancer on Guam, few studies have examined the exact causes. “I don’t think there’s been really any research done,” noted Dr. Leon Guerrero, particularly to look into the potential contribution of military contamination. 

An Act for Compensation

Victoria-Lola isn’t the only one noticing cancer disparities on the island. Robert Celestial, 66, founded the nonprofit group Pacific Association for Radiation Survivors. He says many of his group’s members from Guam end up going to Louisiana, Texas, and California to receive cancer treatment and care. “The first thing the [U.S.] doctors tell people is, ‘This is a rare cancer.’” 

Robert Celestial has spent more than 25 years trying to get compensation and medical care for Guam residents exposed to nuclear fallout. Image by Sara Mar. Guam, 2022.

Celestial believes many of the cancers seen on Guam can be attributed to radiation exposure from nuclear testing in the Pacific. For more than two decades, he has been pushing to get Guam included in RECA—the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. 

RECA is an administrative program established in 1990 by the federal government. It provides monetary compensation to individuals with cancer and other diseases that resulted from radiation exposure. Historically, RECA has covered people in the states, but never Guam.

Although RECA was set to expire in 2022, President Biden signed a two-year extension. There is now a bill in Congress to get Guam included under RECA. The bill—S.3853—would extend the program for six more years and give $100,000 to eligible individuals. People present on Guam between 1946 and 1962 for at least one year could qualify for this compensation if they have certain diseases, including cancer.

Nuclear Fallout on Guam

Proving that Guam residents should be included under RECA hasn’t been easy. Celestial began his research more than 25 years ago, in 1996. He wanted to demonstrate that Guam received significant radioactive fallout from U.S. nuclear testing on the Marshall Islands. That testing includes the largest U.S. thermonuclear detonation ever—Castle Bravo, which resulted in a mushroom cloud nearly 4.5 miles wide.

Celestial wrote a report in 2001 with information about Guam’s exposure to nuclear radiation. However, his claims were disputed in work sponsored by the Department of Energy, which said the health risks from radiation fallout on Guam were “extremely small.”

According to Therese Terlaje, speaker of the Guam Legislature, “when [Celestial] first started talking about this, everyone thought he was crazy … very few people believed him.” 

In 2002, Celestial helped with another report about radioactive contamination as part of a blue ribbon panel for Guam's government. However, it wasn’t until 2005 when the doubts around his research finally began to clear. Findings published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine validated Celestial’s work. Their book concluded Guam received “measurable fallout from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific,” and should be eligible for compensation under RECA.

In 2005, a book published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded that Guam received "measurable" nuclear fallout. Image by Sara Mar. Guam, 2022.

Since the 2005 findings were published, Celestial has worked tirelessly to push for Guam’s inclusion in RECA. “[He] gets up every morning … 2am or 3am … [to] work with people in D.C.,” Terlaje said.

Celestial has raised his own funds to testify at the Capitol and continues to participate in hundreds of Zoom meetings to secure Guam’s inclusion. 

“All these people should have been cared for in this program … And that’s why we’re fighting so hard,” Celestial said.

It’s also a personal battle for Celestial, who spent several years serving in the Army in the Marshall Islands. “I was stationed in Enewetak Atoll to clean up the post-war debris … and I got sick … [now] I’m receiving benefits that [the people of Guam] deserve.”

A Larger Battle

Celestial noted it’s been difficult to get these bills “because we don’t have representation.” As a U.S. territory, Guam lacks a senator, and its House representative is a nonvoting member. 

But Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero thinks the issue goes beyond having representation in Congress. “An island as small as Guam and as far away from where decisions are made in the United States … will always be too small and too far away for them to care.” 

As a co-chairperson of Independent Guåhan, Leon Guerrero works to educate her community about what a free and sovereign Guam could look like. “We were sovereign for thousands of years before we were colonized … we are in a position to make decisions for ourselves and we know what is best for ourselves.” 

Leon Guerrero views Guam’s colonial status as deeply tied to her own story. “The lack of sovereignty and ability to have a say in what is being done in your air, land, and waters truly does impact your survivability and your life,” she said.

She hopes that people in the U.S. leverage their electoral power to help Guam’s cause. “Get to know what Guam is, what we’re struggling with, and [understand] that we don’t have a voice.” 

While the road ahead may be long, both Celestial and Leon Guerrero continue this work from a place of love for their communities and their home. “There’s really no other place in the world like Guam,” said Leon Guerrero.

 “I had a vision … and I’ve never wanted to quit,” said Celestial. “I knew in my heart I had to fight.”

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