Jul 30, 2021 10:00 AM

Read time: 2 minutes

photo of Heidi A. Hanson, PhD, MS

A "downwinder" is a person exposed to radiation from explosions at the federal Nevada Test Site in the 1950s and 1960s. We now know that exposure may lead to certain types of cancer. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) provides a lump sum of money to people diagnosed with cancer (or an heir, if the person is deceased) who meet certain requirements. RECA was originally set to expire July 10, 2022. On June 7, 2022, the President of the United States extended the program for two more years.

Video transcript

Hi. I’m Heidi Hanson. I’m an assistant professor in the department of surgery and an investigator at the Utah Population Database. I’m here to tell you more about what a downwinder is and help you understand what that means for cancer risk.

What is a downwinder?

Downwinders were exposed to nuclear radiation between a period of 1951 and 1962 from above ground nuclear testing, and then from underground nuclear testing a few years after that. What we do is we use the Utah Population Database to identify people who may have been exposed to that radiation and look at their cancer risk throughout their entire life course.

How does radiation affect people?

You can be exposed to radiation in several ways. You have external irradiation where you're exposed to the radiation directly. Internal radiation, where you are breathing it in or it's coming into your body and then you can ingest the radiation as well. What that radiation does is damage the DNA and it can affect your risk for cancer throughout your entire life course.

Does nuclear fallout increase cancer risk?

Lynn Lyon and his colleagues here at the University of Utah conducted a study in the 1980’s to look at the risk for cancer in individuals exposed to the fallout from the nuclear tests that were done at the Nevada test site. That study found that individuals who were exposed to radiation were at increased risk for thyroid cancers and leukemias.

Does nuclear testing affect everyone?

The radioactive fallout from a nuclear bomb isn't constrained to a certain area or region— it's not local. It actually reaches the entire world. It can go up into the stratosphere and there's still fallout happening that's coming down from testing that occurred decades ago

Did nuclear testing cause my cancer?

One thing to keep in mind is that cancer is a very complex disease. So there are a lot of things going on that lead to your increased risk of cancer and to the formation of cancer in each individual. So, it's very difficult for us to say this specific exposure led to your cancer. It's something that there are many different things going on and that's really important to think about when we're thinking about a radioactive fallout and cancer risk. There's a lot to be studied and we're very, very excited to look at all the questions that still exist around this question of how does radiation and exposure to radioactive fallout increase risk for cancer.

downwinder public health cancer research

Cancer touches all of us.

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