ST. GEORGE, Utah (ABC4 News) — A figurative cloud remaining over southern Utah, there are no communities that have not been impacted by the tragedy of cancer, birth defects, or emotional and financial losses as a result of aboveground atomic testing that began in the 1950’s.
Dubbed “downwinders,’ more than 60,000 people were exposed to radioactive fallout in southern Utah during nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site from 1951-58 and July of 1962.
Claudia Peterson of St. George described her idyllic childhood growing up on a farm in Cedar City, unaware that the fresh foods her family ate and the ponds they swam in were contaminated with radioactive material. Over the years, she lost many of her closest loved ones to cancer.
“My father died. A couple years later, my sister died. A month later, my daughter died,” Peterson told ABC4 News. “I loved and adored my father, but when my daughter was diagnosed with cancer, it was just the last thing on Earth I’d ever dreamed would happen.”
Downwinders are encouraged to seek up to $50,000 in compensation before the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) expires in July 2022. Spouses, children, and grandchildren of deceased loved ones may also apply.
Officials at the Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Clinic at Intermountain St. George Regional Hospital are available to walk applicants through the process, according to the clinic’s project director Becky Barlow.
“This was a compensation program brought about to give relief to the people for their pain and suffering,” Barlow told ABC4 News. “It starts with an apology to the people for the government’s role of exposing them to this radiation.”
To receive compensation, 19 cancers linked to nuclear fallout qualify: leukemia, multiple myeloma, lymphomas other than Hodgkin’s, and primary cancers of the pharynx, small intestine, salivary gland, brain, stomach, urinary bladder, colon, thyroid, pancreas, breast, esophagus, bile ducts, liver, gallbladder, lung, and ovary.
“Our office was provided in the money for the grant for the compensation, and so it is a free service for the downwinders,” Barlow added. “They can call us and we can get them applications. We can walk them through the steps, they can come and review the application with us, and we can talk to the Department of Justice on their behalf.”
Qualifying downwinders need to provide documentation for three things: their birth certificate, that they have the disease, and that they were in the area at the time of the testing, according to Barlow. Applicants would need to prove residency for 24 months from 1951 to 1958 — that do not need to be consecutive — or the month of July of 1962 alone.
“In July of 1962, they put out four bombs, and each one was bigger than the bombs they dropped on Japan,” Barlow said. “That one month alone qualifies people for the program.”
Applications and information are available by calling the Downwinder’s Clinic at St. George Regional Hospital at 435-251-4760 to help anyone who may qualify get started on the compensation process.
Barlow also encourages the public to speak to legislators to help extend the act. Peterson says her fight is far from over, as downwinders continue to pass gene mutations from generation to generation.
“I don’t know how they’re gonna say, ‘No, we’re not gonna do that,” when they’ve contaminated the people in our communities,” Peterson said. “The fight is back on.”