Sep 03, 2020 10:00 AM

Author: Mary Dickson

From time to time, HCI invites guest commentary from our community. The views reflected in these commentaries are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of HCI.

I am a downwinder. Like many Americans, I grew up under the clouds of fallout from nuclear testing.

I was raised in Utah, drinking milk from a nearby dairy, eating fresh vegetables from the garden, mixing sugar with snow to pretend it was ice cream, and playing in puddles of rainwater. How were any of us to know that a silent poison was threading its way through our bodies?

Between 1951 and 1992, the U.S. government tested more than 920 nuclear bombs at the Nevada Test Site. An estimated 100 of those were detonated above ground. Atmospheric testing was banned in 1962, but the tests didn’t stop—they were moved underground.

Radiation does not respect arbitrary lines on a map. Material from the explosions was picked up by the shifting winds and carried to nearby cities such as St. George, and then across the country, where it fell to the ground in rain and snow and worked its way into the food chain. That’s how it reached and was measured in Salt Lake City, the Midwest, and even New York state—2,500 miles from the Nevada Test Site. We know now that exposure to this radioactive fallout can cause cancer.  

My personal world shifted the spring before my 30th birthday when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, a cancer associated with fallout exposure. The news was even worse with these two words: “It’s malignant.”

Mary and two of her sisters
Mary, in the middle, and two of her sisters

After I got sick, I began keeping a list of friends and neighbors from my childhood who had cancer and autoimmune diseases believed to be related to radiation exposure. In 2001, I added my sister’s name. She died at age 46 after a long struggle with an autoimmune disease, leaving three children behind. Now, my younger sister is battling a rare cancer, and another sister has an autoimmune disorder proving difficult to diagnose.

After speaking and writing about the human cost of nuclear tests over decades, I have heard tales of sickness and suffering, of children born with birth defects, of many deaths. The stories are heartbreaking. But there is power in our stories. When our voices are loud enough, they lead to change.

Mary and her sisters
Mary and her sisters

Those who understand the continuing health effects of fallout have introduced bills in the House and Senate to prohibit the use of funds for new nuclear weapons tests. Utah Congressman Ben McAdams successfully pushed the House to include language in the FY21 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill blocking any spending on nuclear testing.

Ironically, discussions of resumed nuclear testing come at the same time that bipartisan bills have been introduced in Congress to expand the limited Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which currently offers $50,000 to qualified downwinders diagnosed with specific cancers in a small circle of rural Utah, Nevada, and Arizona counties. Those funds are set to run out in 2022 unless the expansion bill is passed.  [Note: On June 7, 2022, the President of the United States extended the program for two more years.] The amended bills would add all of Utah and several surrounding states.

Nuclear testing continues to harm those who were exposed, even generations later. People are still getting sick. Their cancers are returning. They face long-term health complications. We are still living with the lingering effects of fallout.

My hope is those of us who understand the tragedy of nuclear weapons demand that the mistakes of the past never be repeated. If we learned anything from atomic testing, it is that we all live downwind.

Mary Dickson is a Salt Lake City writer whose award-winning play, Exposed, puts a human face on the cost of nuclear testing. She has been recognized by the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility for her lifetime work on behalf of downwinders.

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