Opinion: My siblings and I are likely victims of Nevada nuclear weapons testing. It’s time for Congress to step up.

Call Utah’s members of Congress. Tell them their refusal to acknowledge and compensate more victims makes them complicit in prolonging and exacerbating this unprecedented moral failure.

In 1957, I was probably the only child at William Penn Elementary in Salt Lake County that asked his parents what Strontium 90 was. My father was one of the few physicians that did not trust the Atomic Energy Commission’s reassurances that “fall out” from nuclear weapons testing in Nevada represented “no hazard” for Utah residents.

When testing occurred, he forbade his eight children from drinking milk for months afterwards to reduce our exposure to radioactive Strontium 90 that would settle on cow pastures and become concentrated in milk. If it rained after a test, he made us wear rubber boots to play outside on the lawn. He had us take potassium iodide pills so our thyroid glands would not absorb the radioactive Iodine 131 released by the tests. Nonetheless, five of his eight children have had cancer, including me, some with multiple types. Many of us have also had non-cancerous thyroid tumors and other diseases likely associated with nuclear weapons radiation exposure.

None of Utah’s congressional delegation supports expanding federal benefits in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), claiming the “data doesn’t support it.” Their claim is either disingenuous or borne of ignorance, so let me offer them some data they should be able to understand.

Cesium 137 is a radioactive by-product of nuclear explosions that can travel anywhere in the body, concentrating inside cells by mimicking potassium. It releases beta particles (electrons) and gamma radiation that can cause skin burns. But when inhaled or ingested, Cesium 137 is much more dangerous. Through that route it can precipitate diseases of the pancreas, like pancreatitis, diabetes and pancreatic cancer, and cancers of muscle tissue.

In 2008, an analysis of soil throughout Washington County, Utah, found that of 102 samples taken, only one did not have Cesium 137. Several samples had amounts “substantially higher than earlier estimates would have predicted.” The authors said, “This leads us to conclude that doses to the public from the testing could also have been higher than earlier thought.”

Researchers at the University of Utah recently found a plethora of toxic heavy metals in the furnace filters of homes in Salt Lake, Weber and Davis Counties. Among the metals were uranium, cesium and ytterbium — some of whose isotopes are radioactive and would likely have come from Nevada nuclear testing. Uranium emits alpha particles that are particularly potent in causing carcinogenetic damage to DNA when inhaled or ingested. If these radioactive elements are in Wasatch Front furnace filters, they are in Utahns’ lungs, still spreading death and disease.

Another study found that significant radiation contaminated a far greater area than just southern Utah and impacted heavily populated northern Utah and parts of Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, Idaho and numerous tribal lands.

Every organ system depends on the integrity of genetic function, and because of that, radiation damage to DNA can leave a long list of diseases far beyond cancer. It likely includes lupus erythematosus; non-malignant tumors of the thyroid gland, uterus, stomach and ovaries; hyperparathyroidism; poor birth outcomes; liver and cardiovascular diseases; and cataracts. Animal studies strongly suggest that the DNA damage from ionizing radiation, just like other types of environmental toxins, can adversely affect the health of future generations even if they are not exposed.

Damage to the thyroid has a profound influence on brain development, especially during infancy. Several epidemiologic studies have found low level radiation harms brain development by impairing thyroid function. In 1957, the largest release of radioactive fallout ever measured drifted east from Nevada. Infant and fetal mortality spiked that year. In 1975, 18 years later, a dramatic, and otherwise unexplained, drop in SAT scores occurred among high school students in states downwind of Nevada. Utah had by far the highest drop in the country, 26 points, and the drop declined in other states inversely proportional to their distance from Nevada. That year Utah had the highest radioactive iodine levels in milk. A similar pattern occurred in 1979.

The original RECA Act has paid out only $2.6 billion among 40,000 radiation victims; a paltry sum and a fraction of the actual number of victims. Meanwhile, the federal government plans to spend $756 billion on more nuclear weapons development between now and 2032.

Fist pumping Sen. Josh Hawley, (R-Missouri), is as much of a MAGA conservative as Utah’s congressional delegation. It is no small outrage that he is the one leading the effort to expand RECA benefits, while none of Utah’s senators and representatives are even willing to vote for it, including Sen. Romney.

The only country that has ever detonated nuclear bombs over American citizens is our own. Call Utah’s members of Congress. Tell them their refusal to acknowledge and compensate more victims makes them complicit in prolonging and exacerbating this unprecedented moral failure.

(Brian Moench)

Dr. Brian Moench is based in Salt Lake City and is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, An avid environmental advocate, he appears in the Oscar-eligible feature documentary film “Downwind” (2023). Stream “Downwind” on several platforms, including Peacock, Amazon Prime and Apple TV. More information at www.backlotdocs.com.

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