Bringing Downwind to Idaho: October Book Tour midpoint

During the early years of my research into the impact of nuclear testing in Nevada, I operated under a common misconception: that Southern Utah had borne the brunt of the contamination from the Nevada tests.  During the atmospheric testing era in Nevada (1951-1962) the Atomic Energy Commission tested only when the wind blew east, away from densely populated Las Vegas and California, and over the more sparsely populated regions of the American West.  While this meant that Southern Utah did receive more than its fair share of fallout, as it was sited directly east of the Nevada Test Site, the wind didn't always follow the same course.  Contamination was frequently carried south, into Arizona and beyond, and north, into northern Utah, southern Idaho, and the states that lay beyond to the east. In 1997 the National Cancer Institute released a study on fallout-related thyroid cancer,

providing a sobering look at all the far flung places the wind travelled to.

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The NCI study concerned itself with only one of many radioactive isotope produced by the nuclear tests: Iodine 131.  I-131 has a relatively short half-life of only eight days, but it remains very dangerous during that time. It began to make its way into the food chain as it drifted down on grazing lands and alfalfa crops which were subsequently consumed by cattle.  The contamination bioaccumulated, which means it increased in concentration as it moved up the food chain.  When humans consumed that I-131 contaminated cows milk, they received doses of radiation to their thyroids, particuarly dangerous in the developing bodies of children.

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The NCI study revealed the extent to which contamination had reached areas beyond southern Utah, and Idahoans struggling to make sense of alarming cancer clusters in their communities found the data particularly enlightening. They've been fighting for years to expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to cover those counties in Idaho that we know were severely affected by radiological contamination from atmopsheric testing in Nevada.  During a gap in my Utah book tour events, I was able to dash up to Idaho to visit two community libraries to speak about these topics. 

 

I spoke to a lovely audience at the library in Malad City, Idaho. A copy of Downwind has been donated to the Oneida County Library.

I spoke to a lovely audience at the library in Malad City, Idaho. A copy of Downwind has been donated to the Oneida County Library.

Sunrise behind a wind farm. Early morning drive across Idaho from Malad City to Emmett.

Sunrise behind a wind farm. Early morning drive across Idaho from Malad City to Emmett.

In Emmett I had the honor of sitting down with four different residents who grew up in Gem County and interviewing them as a group about their memories of farm childhoods, early mentions of nuclear testing, and patterns of health problems in their community.   

The stack of cards in this photograph represent one year of medical appointments for Emmett downwinder Billy Reynolds.  He has mylofibrosis, which his doctor believes could only have been caused by radiation exposure.  He lived in Emmett on a farm from 1951-1961, during the bulk of atmospheric nuclear testing to the south.  Emmett is located in Gem County, which ranks in the top five counties in the United States for fallout from atmospheric nuclear testing. "It seems like death is just a part of life here in Emmett.  My mother lived to be the oldest of her five siblings.  She died at 47.  Three of her siblings had brain cancer."   Billy's father and brother have also died of cancer. I first met Billy two years ago.  At the time he was receiving regular blood transfusions to stay alive. Today he's on a new experimental medication that's improved his quality of life a great deal. It was dear to see him in Emmett.  A copy of Downwind has been donated to the Emmett library. 

The stack of cards in this photograph represent one year of medical appointments for Emmett downwinder Billy Reynolds.  He has mylofibrosis, which his doctor believes could only have been caused by radiation exposure.  He lived in Emmett on a farm from 1951-1961, during the bulk of atmospheric nuclear testing to the south.  Emmett is located in Gem County, which ranks in the top five counties in the United States for fallout from atmospheric nuclear testing. "It seems like death is just a part of life here in Emmett.  My mother lived to be the oldest of her five siblings.  She died at 47.  Three of her siblings had brain cancer."   Billy's father and brother have also died of cancer. I first met Billy two years ago.  At the time he was receiving regular blood transfusions to stay alive. Today he's on a new experimental medication that's improved his quality of life a great deal. It was dear to see him in Emmett.  A copy of Downwind has been donated to the Emmett library. 

Emmett downwinder organizer Tona Henderson has copies of Downwind for sale at her bakery, the Rumor Mill.  

Emmett downwinder organizer Tona Henderson has copies of Downwind for sale at her bakery, the Rumor Mill.  

Snapshot of the tour midpoint. 

Snapshot of the tour midpoint.