SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – ABC4 recently reported on the Utah Downwinders and the deadline for the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) that was set to expire on July 10th, 2022 after 22 years.
Legislation proposed by Utah Senator Mike Lee designed to extend RECA’s lifespan was passed unanimously in the U.S. Senate on April 28, 2022. This extension gives RECA another two years of providing benefits for downwinders across the U.S.
While this extension is a huge victory for all downwinders, it is part of a much larger effort by Sen. Lee to pass the Downwinders Act, which would renew RECA for an additional ten years. The Downwinders Act would also extend federal assistance to a wider range of people who have suffered from radioactive exposure.
On the passed legislation and Downwinders Act, Sen. Lee says in a press release that “the impact of atomic testing on the health of those in Utah and the West has lasted decades. Downwinders have been seriously harmed by government action, and yet the government still does not recognize many who have been hurt. This bill commits the federal government to care for these Utahns.”
Downwinders are those who have been exposed to radiation or radioactive material because of federal nuclear testing in the Nevada Test Site, home to 100 of the 200 above-ground nuclear weapons tests in the 1950s and 1960s.
The tests created nuclear fallout constituted of a variety of radioactive material, including iodine-131 which is known to cause thyroid cancer and other chronic health problems. This fallout is launched into the area surrounding a nuclear weapon detonation and remains spread out across great distances. Radioactive material generally has a long half-life, meaning that it remains dangerously radioactive for a long time after detonation.
Utahns downwind of the Nevada Testing Site were told that they were safe from any negative effects of the testing. Some even report having cocktail parties and other events organized around watching the testing from afar, and radio broadcasts advising the general population about when detonations would occur so they could watch them. Some downwinders even made “snow angels” in the ash that collected on their lawns after nuclear testing.
Even if downwinders weren’t directly spectating nuclear testing, the fallout from the blasts irradiated water, livestock, soil, and crops around them. In fact, the first impacts of the testing were reported to have been noticed in surrounding livestock. These radioactive materials can irradiate people exposed to them, resulting in increased cancer risk and other health problems. These health problems can even be passed down through generations, as reproductive organs are particularly sensitive to radioactive exposure, which often causes birth defects.
Previous reporting has shown how downwinders, despite being relatively small populations, have contracted cancers such as leukemia in clusters surrounding specific time frames and geographic locations. Many downwinders reported contracting multiple types of cancer at the same time. Part of the difficulty of cancer caused by exposure to radiation is that it is extremely difficult to directly prove a causal relationship between the two.
As the health implications of this testing became clear in subsequent decades, the federal government passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). The act has created an administrative program for those exposed to radiation because of federal testing to make claims for financial compensation and health care assistance. The act was initially implemented on July 10, 2022, and was given a 22-year lifespan set to terminate on July 10th, 2022. The US Senate’s unanimous vote has given RECA a two-year extension.
Information and accounts for this article were taken from the Healutah.org anthology of information and accounts about downwinders. You can find more on their website, as well as information on how to get involved in activism and lobbying for the benefit of downwinders.