As a victim of the Cold War from the 1950s atomic testing, I am appalled to read that President Trump is wasting money from the military budget for repainting rusty 40-year-old tanks that the U.S. army does not need or want. Such a boondoggle may create a few temporary jobs for people in Lima, Ohio, who lost jobs when the tank manufacturer ceased production five years ago. But why can’t they build new sewer systems or strengthen deteriorating bridges instead of refurbishing 11 useless tanks every month?
Those military funds should have been committed long ago to compensating workers and families who suffered diseases and deaths from the Nevada atomic tests. The tests were categorized as “weapons development,” for the purpose of national defense. Thus the unpaid debts from the Cold War should be paid from defense budgets.
The Atomic Energy Commission in the 1950s was reassuring residents of Nevada and southern Utah that the tests were harmless. But winds were carrying fallout particles of radioactive iodine, known as I-131, across a wide territory. When unprecedented numbers of people who lived near the test site began dying of cancer and thyroid diseases, the government had to acknowledge responsibility.
Sen. Orrin Hatch wrote a major bill called RECA — the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. Passed in 1990 and slightly amended in 2000, the act included an apology from the U.S. government. It offered recompense of up to $50,000 for families in the “downwinder” areas of Southern Utah and Nevada who had suffered losses, diseases and deaths from the fallout.
Northern Utah counties were not considered eligible for RECA. Yet in 1954 and 1957, strong winds had carried the dreaded I-131 particles directly over Salt Lake City. Particles that fell onto grass were ingested by grazing cows, whose milk then conveyed radioactive iodine to humans. Milk-drinkers were therefore vulnerable, regardless of their residential location. And we now know that airborne fallout has affected all the states of the USA, some of it drifting from far-away Russia. As nuclear power plants around the world experience accidents and meltdowns, we see again the disastrous effects of radioactive iodine upon human lives and the environment.
A major study by 10 scientists (Rasoul Yahyapour et. al.), published online in March 2018, explains the bio-chemical reactions and how they cause autoimmune diseases. It confirms that inflammation damage can continue over an individual’s lifetime, and that related health problems can occur up to 25 years after exposure. Radiation causes inflammation in body tissues, which can trigger one’s immune system to sense a foreign presence in various organs and attack them. Several autoimmune diseases that can result from exposure include Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, clinical depression, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes 2.
My own family was exposed in 1954 in Salt Lake City. Since then, we have had five deaths from cancer — my husband, my brother, my sister, my niece and my son. My son born in 1954 died of melanoma cancer at age 62. Suffering great pain for two years, he was unable to work. His wife quit her job to care for him, and they exhausted their retirement savings. Their expenses easily exceeded the $50,000 CETA should owe his widow.
It’s clearly unjust to compensate some downwinders in Utah and not others. Attempts to amend RECA have stalled because of concern over budget deficits. That is why the Defense Department should provide money to compensate victims of the weapons development program of the Cold War. This is not a new tax. It’s a debt of honor.
Helen Heightsman Gordon, Santa Barbara, Calif., is Salt Lake City’s East High School and was an honor student English major at the University of Utah until 1962. She taught 21 years as an English professor at Bakersfield College, Bakersfield, Calif. She still has family members in Salt Lake City and Provo.