By Jonathan Munk
Local researchers and doctors are hard at work trying to find a solid link between cancer and radioactive fallout from nuclear testing almost 50 years ago.
For decades, advocacy groups have been fighting for recognition and compensation for radiation that fell on countless residents of Utah and Nevada during nuclear testing at a test site in the ”50s and ”60s.
Some think the radioactive fallout has caused unusually high amounts of thyroid cancer across the country.
In response, the federal government conducted a study to discover what association existed between cancer and the fallout.
After the government ended its study in 1965, the University of Utah took over. Now the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is offering $1.5 million for the next phase of the thyroid cancer study to determine the long-term effects of radiation on the thyroids.
Now the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is offering $1.5 million to researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine to conduct the third phase of the study to determine if a relationship exists between radiation and thyroid cancer.
Preston Truman, a test participant and the founder and director of the advocacy group Downwinders, said high dosages of Iodine-131, an extremely “hot” radioactive isotope, can be blamed for the high number of thyroid cancer cases, which the government tried to ignore for years.
“They [the government] had no idea of knowing what the iodine levels were at the time,” Truman said. “They didn”t measure it.”
Truman said during the ”60s, milk produced by cows in areas exposed to radiation contained a high concentration of iodine, caused from cows eating fallout-exposed grass. The harmful iodine in the grass was then concentrated in the milk.
“That milk would have hundreds of times the doses [of iodine] that are spread out over the whole pasture,” Truman said. “And then when you drink it, the iodine goes straight to your thyroids,” resulting in thyroid damage.
The first study began in the 1960s and tested children who had been exposed to radioactive fallout from the Nevada Test Site, where more than 900 atomic tests were conducted from 1951 through 1962. Truman said researchers from the federal government came and palpitated the students” thyroids, but concluded that there was no excess thyroid cancer.
More than 20 years later, another phase of testing by the University of Utah concluded that exposure to fallout had led to an unusually high incidence of thyroid tumors.
The third phase of testing, which is now in progress, comes 50 years after the heaviest fallout occurred, in 1953. The only participants allowed to take part in this third phase are people who participated in the first two.
“We want to do a very thorough, complete job on it because there”s not much data on these problems.” said Dr. Joseph L. Lyon, principle investigator for the study.
This latest round of studies would be very helpful in comparing the U.S. results with those from studies of fallout in Chernobyl and Kazakstan, Truman said.
The victims of fallout have been very cooperative for the study, said Lyon, but most are not optimistic about benefiting from the results of the study.
Lyon said many people have given up on receiving any kind of compensation, since the nuclear testing happened so long ago.
Another issue the government faces is deciding who deserves compensation and how much compensation to give, Truman said.
“Where do you stop?” Truman said. “Do you get equal compensation for equal exposure? We like to call it ”justice or just-us?””