I am a survivor of the Cold War. While many of the major monuments of that war are gone, the results of our country's engagement in the tense conflict can still be found in the form of thyroid cancer, lymphoma, and other illnesses resulting from the radioactive fallout that accompanied our nation's nuclear weapons testing program.
While working at Bryce Canyon National Park in the 1950s, I watched as the bombs exploded over the horizon. I had no idea that some of the more than 12 billion curies of radioactivity that were being released into the atmosphere would find their way from the Nevada Test Site into my home. I would never have guessed that the radioactive iodine would make its way into the milk I ingested, and that the accompanying iodine 131, cesium-137 and strontium-90 would invade not only my garden vegetables, but also my body's soft tissue, my teeth, my bones.
Watching those nuclear bombs light up a southern Utah dawn, I never imagined that the tests, meant to deter the Soviet Union, would instead eradicate my immune system.
Last month, the U.S. Senate decided to honor downwinders by declaring Jan. 27 a national day of remembrance for victims of nuclear weapons testing. In 1990, the U.S. Congress, led by Utah's Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Wayne Owens, voted to pass the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. RECA, as it came to be called, drew a strict boundary around southern Utah counties, declaring that compensation would be available only to downwinders within those politically fashioned boundaries.
According to RECA's map, someone living in Davis or Salt Lake counties, which received the 25th and 27th highest exposure to fallout among all counties in the nation, would not be eligible for compensation to help cover the devastating expenses of medical treatment for fallout-related illnesses.
At the same time, a downwinder suffering in Wayne County (which ranked 81st for exposure) would receive full compensation for medical expenses for the same diseases.
While fallout quite naturally didn't adhere to existing political boundaries, compensation has adhered strictly to political boundaries. A 2005 congressional report from the Committee on Government Reform foundÂ that "radiation-associated cancer is actually more common in counties where residents are excluded from compensation than in those counties where residents are included underÂ RECAÂ law."
For decades, downwinders have been fighting for adequate compensation to cover health costs resulting from fallout exposure. Finally, a group of bipartisan Western senators, recognizing this injustice, introduced legislation to expand RECA to all counties in Western states where significant amounts of fallout were detected.
Whatever compensation may eventually become available is already too late. Many downwinders are no longer with us.
While it's commendable that this Friday, Jan. 27, be set aside as a day of remembrance for downwinders, remembering isn't enough. We must do more. Sens. Hatch and Mike Lee of Utah should support the expansion of RECA to the entire state.
While remembering the victims of past nuclear weapons tests, we must also protect the health and safety of future generations by ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. It's long past time for the dangerous practice of nuclear weapons testing, which poisoned so many, to be rendered obsolete, relegated to its place in history among such other Cold War relics as the Berlin Wall.
Darlene Phillips has spent 35 years of her life as a research patient for the NationalÂ InstitutesÂ of Health in a program aimed at understanding the effects of radioactive fallout on the human immune system. She lives in Bountiful.