‘Downwinders’ aftermath still a reality today in Iron County
By Craig Bennett
Iron County Today
The bombs had names such as Morgan, Charleston and “Dirty Harry.” They appeared as flashes in the sky that looked faraway but were close enough to Southern Utah to cause damage that is still being felt by residents that are referred to as “Downwinders.” The term is used to describe the more than 60,000 people who were exposed to radioactive fallout during the nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site.
The beginning of atmospheric testing in Nevada began with a one kiloton bomb being dropped from an aircraft on January 27, 1951. Few Washington or Iron County residents were aware of, or concerned about, the nuclear testing when the first mushroom cloud rose into view over the western desert. The testing left behind a snowy ash and reverberations that rumbled through St. George, Cedar City and Parowan that residents described as a freight train coming through the living room.
The cloud figuratively remains over Southern Utah and Nevada to this day. Residents live with the aftermath every day, even though the fallout is not visible anymore.
Harriett Perkins grew up in Orderville and was 8 years old during the atomic testing.
“I remember being at Primary and having ash in my hair. I remember running out to see the bright red sunsets,” she remembers. “Later in life, I noticed a lump in my right eye. I never thought that the lump would end up cancerous. It ended up spreading to my face and bones. I did rounds of chemotherapy at the LDS hospital and six weeks of radiation treatment at Dixie Regional Medical Center, but two years ago it returned. I went back for the six weeks of chemotherapy and they put me on a maintenance drug. My husband retired and without insurance, we couldn’t afford the $30,000 to stay on the drug, but it’s all good.”
When asked what type of warning the government had given residents, she responded, “My dad and mom talked about the tests with us and I had an uncle that worked at the bomb site, so we knew the date and time of the testing. I believe the radioactive ash remains in the dirt to this day. There are still many people my age that are being diagnosed with cancer. They need to fill out the government paperwork to be compensated.”
She continues to be a real advocate for “Downwinders” in Southern Utah.
Ninety-three atom bombs were detonated in the nearby Nevada Desert between 1951 and 1963. These bombs ushered in the atomic age, with nearly one third of the bombs tested larger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II.
The western desert site was chosen because of the flat terrain, and as long as the winds were blowing east, the fallout from the blast avoided major populated areas such as Las Vegas and Los Angeles. The cloud of fallout traveled over sparsely populated areas of southeastern Nevada and Utah instead.
There are very few communities that have not been touched by cancer, birth defects or lingering bitterness because of the nuclear testing.
The RESEP, or Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program Clinic at Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George, was established by the Federal Government to aid thousands of individuals potentially affected by the nuclear testing. These individuals are at a greater risk for leukemia, lymphoma, breast, thyroid and other cancers. Treatments for a total of 19 cancers in all are funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Becky Barlow, nurse practitioner at the clinic in St. George talking with Iron County Today, said, “The clinic offers free screening for people affected by the testing. We are participating in the Senior Fair in Beaver on April 26 and in Cedar City on May 4. Anyone who was present during the nuclear testing can set up an appointment. The number of the clinic is 435-251-2875. They are currently accepting new patients.
“We want to continue to see new patients as well as repeat patients,” Barlow said. “Downwinders can’t change their exposure history, but they can be proactive, get screened, and get it diagnosed early if it is there. Early detection can make all the difference in overall survival.”
Downwinders are described as those who lived in Washington, Iron, Kane, Beaver, Millard, Piute, San Juan, Sevier, Wayne or Garfield counties in Utah; Eureka, Lander, Lincoln, Nye, White Pine or northeast Clark counties in Nevada; and northern Mohave, Coconino, Apache, Gila, Navajo and Yavapai counties for Arizona for at least one year from 1951 to 1958 or the month of July 1962 during the nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site. The Nevada Test Site workers who worked on site at the Nevada Pacific, Trinity and South Atlantic nuclear test facilities during an atmospheric detonation are also considered a part of this group, along with anyone who were miners, ore transporters or millers of uranium for at least one year from 1942 to 1971.
The Atomic Energy Commission press releases and brochures promised that atomic tests would be conducted with adequate assurances of safety. According to a pamphlet put out by the Joint Test Organization at Camp Mercury, Nevada dated February 1955 as a message to people who lived near the Nevada Test Site:
Declassified government transcripts released from 1978 to 1980 reportedly show that scientists knew as early as 1947 that fission products released by atomic bomb tests could be deadly to humans and animals exposed during as well as after the tests.
Sheep and their owners were reported to be Iron County’s first victims of radioactivity. While being trailed across Nevada from winter range to the lambing yards at Cedar City, some 18,000 to 20,000 sheep were exposed to large amounts of radioactive fallout from tests in March and April 1953. Ranchers noticed burns on faces and lips where they had been eating radioactive grass. The ewes began miscarrying in large numbers, and at the lambing yards wool sloughed off in clumps revealing blisters. New lambs were stillborn with deformities or born so weak they were unable to nurse. Ranchers lost up to one third of their herds.
In November of 2011, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution that recognized that “downwinders paid a high price for the development of a nuclear weapons program for the benefit of the United States,” adding that the downwinders “deserve to be recognized for the sacrifice they have made for the defense of the United State.”
There is a compensation program available to those affected by the atomic testing in the Nevada desert. Claim forms and qualification for compensation can be found at https://www.hrsa.gov/get-health-care/conditions/radiation-exposure/downwinders.html.