The Forgotten Downwinders

Idaho fallout victims seek acknowledgment, remuneration

| August 18, 2004
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- Grant Olsen

Sixty-year-old Sarah Hughes of Wendell, Idaho, isn't a nuclear "downwinder" in the overt Nevada or Utah versions of the word. Living well over 600 miles north of the infamous Nevada nuclear testing grounds, she never had to watch an atomic explosion from her front porch, never wiped radioactive ash from car windows or witnessed her neighbors falling prey to leukemia. Indeed, Hughes' Buhl, Idaho upbringing was downright idyllic. "We had some cows, raised crops and a gorgeous garden," she recalls. "I rolled around in the grass, ate fresh meat and vegetables, spring water and milk. We never stopped for a second to think about radiation."

Unfortunately, Hughes perfectly fits the prototype of an Idaho fallout victim. Her rural upbringing, her childhood during the Nevada Test Site's atmospheric heyday of 1951 to 1962 and her fondness for fresh, unprocessed milk made her an ideal target for exposure to the radioactive byproduct Iodine 131. Ten years ago, her doctors discovered a metastasized tumor in her thyroid gland, the organ that most bears the brunt of I-131. The cancer has since spread to her lungs, kidneys and spleen. After consulting numerous doctors, Sarah came to believe, like an increasing amount of Idaho cancer victims, that fallout from Nevada is to blame for her condition--and that governmental compensation is a step toward redressing the wrong.

Evidence supporting claims like Hughes' has exploded in the last decade. In 1997, the National Cancer Institute released a study concluding that rural counties in Idaho and Montana had the highest exposure rates to I-131 to be found anywhere in the nation. The reasons for these high numbers have been well documented, and are not mere coincidence, according to Snake River Alliance Executive Director Jeremy Maxand. "[Nuclear technicians] would wait until the wind was blowing north toward Idaho to detonate these devices," he explains, "because they wanted to ensure that there weren't plumes of radiation heading toward urban centers."

Once in the sky, the I-131 (whose half-life is a mere eight days) would follow weather patterns north to farmlands, settle on grass, be eaten by cows and goats and contaminate their milk. In Ada County, the radiation levels were slight, due to the age of our shelved milk. But in rural areas like Gem, Blaine, Custer and Lemhi Counties, an inhabitant could easily be exposed to several hundred times the normal or background levels of radiation. In children and women, the effects on thyroid glands were more concentrated, leading to many modern-day cancer patients who may be fallout victims without realizing it.

In 1990, the U.S. Department of Justice created the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program for uranium miners, nuclear employees and downwinders affected by fallout. A select group of 21 Utah, Nevada and Arizona counties were given the chance to plead their cases, but even then, according to Preston J. Truman, Utah fallout victim and head of the nuclear activist organization Downwinders, "It was very clear that there were more affected areas than just us. But if you open that door beyond just a few cowboys, Indians and Mormons, then all kind of questions pop up about what kind of damage [nukes] did to this country as a whole."

Truman and many others have long called for expansion of the current compensation program to include several previously left out diseases and, in his words, "[inhabitants of] any location that matches the fallout level in the counties that already are covered." The radiation levels inflicted upon Idaho's Gem and Custer Counties, for instance, are 1.5 times higher than even the highest covered counties during the two decade span. Women, small children and heavy milk drinkers in those locations could reach upwards of 100 rad. Normal background radiation, by comparison, is .01 rad per year. Were Truman's plans for expansion realized, all of Utah, Idaho and Montana would be eligible for compensation.

The National Academy of Science, who conveys radiation fallout research to Washington, D.C., lawmakers is preparing a report about that expansion for early 2005, and held several public meetings in Utah during July of this year to gather fallout stories and comments. None were held in Idaho, although requests were made both by the Alliance and Truman--who was kicked out of one such meeting for arguing Idaho's case. He reports that he has corresponded with more than 100 potential Idaho downwinders so far, but warns that victims need "to come together and make their case soon. If Idahoans are going to be excluded as not being worthy enough downwinders, that is a huge problem."

In July of this year, Idaho's four congressional delegates sent a group letter to the N.A.S. Board of Radiation Effects Research, asking for Idaho cancer cases to be reviewed in upcoming discussions about the expansion of compensation. The letter did not request a public meeting specific to Idaho's downwinders to take place before the upcoming August 31 deadline for public comment. According to congressman Butch Otter's Communications Director Mark Warbis, though, such a request has been made, as well as a request for a postponement of the public comment deadline.

Neither request will apparently be heeded. Dr. Isaf Al-Nabulsi, radiation effect study director for the N.A.S. board, assured BW on Monday, August 16, that no plans exist at this point to hold a public meeting either in Idaho or Montana by the deadline. The only exception she allowed, however unlikely, would be an urgent meeting requested by Congress specifically to address Idaho. The committee, she stated, wants instead to concentrate on writing its report, but "will consider all information they receive, from Idaho and all other states." She also recalled receiving over 30 e-mails from Idaho downwinders, and encourages concerned Idahoans to contact her directly with any requests or stories concerning I-131 exposure.

Hughes, like downwinders in Utah and Nevada, characterizes the drive toward compensation in terms of governmental acknowledgment and apology rather than just money. This conclusion is backed up by the relatively unimpressive monetary settlements procured by downwinders in other states--usually to the tune of $50,000, barely a drop in most medical bill buckets. But according to fellow thyroid cancer sufferer and potential fallout victim Xan Allen of Boise, simple recognition is a huge step in the right direction, particularly in lieu of the potential reactivation of the Nevada Test Site within two years. "My parents trusted the U.S. government to do the right thing," the 64-year-old Pocatello native recalls, "and it didn't. I want to do more than trust. I want to be sure the government does the right thing."

In Hughes' words, "They can't make it right, but they can make it better."

To calculate your risk of I-131 exposure, go to www.cancer.gov/i131. County by county radiation levels are also available. To contact Dr. Al-Nabulsi, e-mail ialnabul@nas.edu. More information about S.R.A and downwinder activism are available at www.snakeriveralliance.org and www.downwinders.org.

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