Environment

The citizens who died for atom and country

William Lowther January 29 1979
Environment

The citizens who died for atom and country

William Lowther January 29 1979

The citizens who died for atom and country

Environment

As the United States began testing its nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert 28 years ago, the few scattered families who lived close by believed they were privileged. They would get up in the dark to see the mammoth blasts

turn dawn into day. In the red cliff and desert canyon country of southwest Utah the farmers gathered to stare in wonder at the mushroom clouds that followed the first white flash. And they remember now how they felt secure and

proud to be part of a nation with such colossal military power.

But the memories are tinged with bitterness and anger. For soon after the thunderous explosions that shook the ground for 50 miles, pink clouds of fallout dust would drift over the landscape. The government promised that it wouldn’t harm anyone and even congratulated the local population for being “in a very real sense active participants in the nation’s atomic test program.” That was just before people started dying.

Life changed in the frontier-like society of southern Utah and northern Arizona. A certain fear took hold. Children and adults alike died of leukemia in numbers that stretched way beyond the national average. Other cancer deaths, particularly those connected with lymph glands, became—and still are—much more common. And there was a startling rise in birth defects.

Washington authorities ordered medical studies but they were reported to be inconclusive and the Atomic Energy Commission assured everyone that their nuclear tests had been “harmless.”

Still, the people who actually live in this somewhat remote corner of America have remained certain that “something is funny.”

Cancer is widespread. And yet, there is practically no industrial pollution in the area. Also, a great many of the locals are devout Mormons who don’t smoke, drink alcohol, coffee or tea. A 1976 study by the University of Utah shows that among such people the incidence of cancer should be 22 per cent lower than the national average.

Last summer a group of women in the small town of St. George, Utah, decided to find out exactly what grounds there were for the fears that stem back to those above-ground nuclear tests. They were out to back up suspicions with facts. They phoned everyone in the telephone book and asked if they, a relative or friend, had cancer. From a population of 10,000 they found 85 people suffering from cancer at that time and 78 others who had died from it in recent years. Another telephone session in Cedar City, 50 miles north, turned up the names of 75 cancer victims and in nearby Parowan, a town with a population of 2,000, the group found 175 cancer victims, many of whom were children at the time of the nuclear tests.

The women formed themselves into the Committee of Survivors and encouraged all living cancer victims, and the survivors of those who have died, to claim damages from the federal govern-

ment. They have hired a high-powered Washington lawyer and through him they filed 35 claims, each for $1 million, last September. They filed another 100 claims in December and a 100 more in mid-January. By this summer they plan to have registered about 500 claims. To date there has been no response.

But the plot is thickening. For The Washington Post has unearthed, through the Freedom of Information Act, a study conducted for the U.S. Public Health Service in 1965 which shows that excessive leukemia deaths were occurring among Utah residents exposed to radioactive fallout from atomic bomb tests. The study was never published. Rather it was shelved and forgotten. Although this is now denied, the suspicion is that the study was ignored because of the embarrassment it threatened to the government.

According to the Washington newspaper, officials of the department of health, education and welfare—now involved in dealing with the claims from the Committee of Survivors — were “horrified” when first told about the study.

The study makes clear that from 1951 until atomic testing went underground in 1962, more than 80 above-ground tests were conducted at the Nevada proving grounds. It further states that following 20 to 26 of the tests radioactive fallout spread into areas of southern Utah and northern Arizona populated by a few thousand.

Most significantly it details that between 1951 and 1955—a time when some of the biggest and “dirtiest” nuclear tests were made—“few sophisticated or detailed fallout measurements were taken in populated areas.” In other words, the government simply didn’t know (and one is tempted to say that the responsible officials didn’t care) how much fallout was landing on the people.

As leukemia and lymph gland cancers increased, Utah state officials were becoming disturbed by the unusual number of birth defects in Iron and Washington counties. These reached a “marked peak” in 1958. In three other nearby counties birth defects reached “an extraordinary peak” in 1962. Despite the indications, nuclear testing officials claim that no one could have received enough fallout to trigger their illness. They say that the atmospheric tests were conducted safely, and that there wasn’t enough fallout outside the testing grounds to cause health problems.

These assurances did not convince at least one local doctor. Therold Stewart grew up about 45 miles northeast of the testing grounds at a time when the fallout was at its worst. She died of leukemia on July 18, 1963, age 25. Her

doctor attributed her fatal disease to “being burned by radioactive fallout while walking to school in the early 1950s.”

As the Committee of Survivors began to amass its evidence a few months ago, Utah politicians were called into the fray. The state’s two congressmen and its two senators pooled resources to pressure the White House, the Department of Energy and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to look again at the aftermath of the nuclear tests. As a result, President Carter has ordered HEW Secretary Joseph Califano

to re-evaluate the findings of earlier studies on the incidence of leukemia in Utah, particularly in the southwestern areas, reopen a study conducted in the late 1960s on the incidence of thyroid disease, and consider, in consultation with Utah officials, the possibility of developing a larger and more complete study.

Congressman Dan Marriott, whose district includes the worst hit fallout areas, says: “I’m just horrified that nothing has been done yet. Our people seem to have been used as guinea pigs.” William Lowther