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.
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.
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.
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.