ST. GEORGE, Utah (ABC4 News) – Health experts in Southern Utah are holding public meetings for those who lived downwind of nuclear tests in Nevada during the 1950s and 1960s, as the program that helped to compensate “downwinders” is coming to an end.
An estimated 60,000 people who lived in Southern Utah during the tests are at a much higher risk of cancer.
Born and raised on a small farm in Cedar City, St. George downwinder Claudia Peterson says she was living a seemingly charmed life with her family while being unaware that fresh foods they ate and ponds they swam in were contaminated.
Over the years, Peterson said she watched nuclear fallout slowly kill friends and family around her.
“My father died. A couples years later my sister died, then a month later my daughter died,” Peterson said. “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.”
Around 100 nuclear bombs were tested in Nevada between 1951 and 1958 and July of 1962, dispersing radioactive materials over Southern Utah. Nineteen cancers are linked to nuclear fallout.
“In our clinic, I would say the most common ones we’ve seen are breast, thyroid, leukemia, and lymphoma,” said Becky Barlow, the project director of the Radiation Exposure Screening Clinic at Dixie Regional Medical Center.
Downwinders can receive $50,000 in federal compensation for nuclear test radiation exposure, but the act is due to expire in July 2022. Staff at Dixie Regional Medical Center want anyone eligible to apply before the law sunsets.
Many downwinders say they’re working to extend the deadline of the act, as they’re passing the gene mutations from generation to generation.
“I don’t know how they’re gonna say they’re not gonna do that when they’ve contaminated the people in the communities,” Peterson said. “So the fight is back on.”
The first meeting is at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday night at the Intermountain Cancer Center in St. George located at 600 S. Medical Center Drive, Building 7. Another meeting is scheduled for May 15 at 6:30 p.m. in Enterprise at 375 S. 200 East.
Staff at Dixie Regional Medical Center are encouraging the public to speak to legislators to help extend the act.