Suffering Effects of 50's A-Bomb Tests
September 5, 2004
EMMETT, Idaho, Aug. 31 - In the 1950's and early 1960's, at
the height of the cold war, people in this southwestern
Idaho town thought what they occasionally saw dusting their
fruit orchards and cow pastures was frost - only it was not
cold to the touch, several longtime residents said. Others
described it as a gray-white powder that seemed to come out
The residents of this town of dairy and cattle farmers did
not know it then, but half a century ago, northern winds
blew radioactive fallout into southeastern Idaho when the
federal government set off about 90 nuclear bombs at its
Nevada test site near Las Vegas.
There is not any doubt that Emmett, population 5,500, and
other towns in four Idaho counties were exposed to high
levels of radiation from the open-air atomic bomb blasts,
receiving among the highest doses of a radioactive chemical
that has been linked to increased risk for thyroid cancer.
The National Cancer Institute in 1997 released a detailed
study and a map plotting the locations of the fallout
across the country, ranking concentrations of Radioactive
Iodine-131, an isotope released when a nuclear bomb is
detonated, from Nevada to upstate New York. The study put
the four Idaho counties - Gem County, which includes
Emmett; Lemhi; Blaine; and Custer - and one in Montana at
the top of that list.
But few Emmett residents heard about that study, dozens
said in recent interviews. Even as sick residents of other
Western states received compensation from the government,
the question of how Idahoans may have been affected by the
nuclear tests received little attention. But now a furor
has erupted here and elsewhere in Idaho, set off by one
Emmett native, who survived thyroid cancer but is dying of
breast cancer that has spread to her liver and her bones.
The native, Sheri Garman, 52, who now lives in Vancouver,
Wash., wrote a long letter to an Idaho state legislator - a
high school classmate - after learning that the National
Academy of Sciences, at the request of the federal
government, is currently re-evaluating the extent of the
fallout from the Nevada test site and its connection to
other cancers and diseases besides thyroid cancer.
The academy's Board on Radiation Effects Research has held
three hearings on the matter over the last year, two in
Utah, including one on July 29, and one in Arizona.
"I think Idahoans were severely misled on the seriousness
of the situation," Ms. Garman wrote on July 14 to Kathy
Skippen, a state representative from Gem County. "It's not
just thyroid cancer. It's not insignificant. It's deadly,
expensive and it is known."
Like many Emmett residents, Ms. Garman grew up on a dairy
farm, drinking fresh milk. Children of her generation
living in places like Emmett, where the 1997 cancer
institute study showed residents had received large doses
of Radioactive Iodine-131, are at greater risk for
developing thyroid cancer because the cows ingested
The study, of 3,071 counties, concluded the fallout caused
or would eventually cause tens of thousands of cases of
thyroid cancer. Radiation from fallout is measured in rads;
one rad is equivalent to the amount of radiation absorbed
by the thyroid of a person who has 10 X-rays in the neck
area. Residents of the four Idaho counties, the study said,
received average thyroid doses of 12 to 16 rads, but the
dose to some children may have been as high as 100 rads.
Idaho officials, including Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, then a
United States senator, responded to the study by calling
the situation an "outrage" and demanding further
investigation. At the time Mr. Kempthorne also asked that
Idaho be included in a government compensation program that
now provides $50,000 each to residents of 21 counties in
Utah, Nevada and Arizona whose illnesses have been
diagnosed with any of 19 cancers. But Idaho residents were
not included in the compensation program, which has thus
far paid $780 million to other "down winders" exposed to
radiation during the bomb tests as well as employees at the
weapons testing sites and uranium mine and mill workers.
"What we need now," Ms. Garman said in a telephone
interview, "is to get public hearings in Idaho. We need our
politicians to be our watchdogs. We're too sick, and we're
not all going to be there when this happens."
Critics say that Governor Kempthorne and other officials,
after initially expressing concern, have ignored the public
health threat to Idaho residents. Nuclear watchdog groups
have also questioned whether the officials' reluctance to
press the issue was intended to protect Idaho's nuclear
power industry, a major employer in the state, or because
they supported the idea of resuming nuclear testing, as was
proposed in a Pentagon report in 2002. State officials
denied such motivations.
The controversy prompted Mr. Kempthorne and Senator Larry
E. Craig, both Republicans, to take the unusual step of
defending themselves two weeks ago on the editorial pages
of the state's largest newspaper, The Idaho Statesman.
The governor, in an article published on Aug. 18, said, "I
urge anyone with a story to tell to come forward."
But he also cited a 1998 study by the Cancer Data Registry
of Idaho that found an increasing rate of thyroid cancer in
Blaine and Custer Counties, but was unable to attribute the
rising rates to a specific cause.
Asked why the governor had waited until now to urge Idaho
residents to come forward if they suspected fallout had
made them sick, a spokesman for Mr. Kempthorne, Mike
Journee, said that the governor was waiting for concrete
proof. He said the governor would support compensation for
Idahoans if there were evidence "comparable to the evidence
that was used to compensate folks in Utah."
Yet when the compensation program was amended in 2000 at
the urging of Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah to include
more counties in his state and in Arizona, Utah officials
had the same scientific information- the 1997 Cancer
Institute study - available to them as Idaho officials did.
Utah officials cited testimony of residents from Utah and
Arizona that was made available to Mr. Hatch's office as a
rationale for including five more counties in those two
Senator Hatch, a Republican, wrote the original 1990 law
that mandated compensation, known as the Radiation Exposure
Compensation Act; the payments are administered by the
Mr. Journee said that Utah residents had been more vocal
about their illnesses than Idahoans had.
"They were engaged," he said. "The reason folks down in
Utah got compensation is that they told their stories.
That's what the governor wants the people of Idaho to do."
[On Friday, Mr. Kempthorne wrote in a letter to the
National Academy of Sciences board studying the issue, "I
call upon the board to compare exposure information for
Idaho with the areas currently included" in the
compensation program. "Fairness," he wrote, "must recognize
the human faces behind cold, and often inconclusive studies
Here in Emmett, residents have spent the last several days
making lists of relatives and neighbors - living and dead -
with cancer. They have rushed to a local bakery, aptly
named the Rumor Mill, where the owner, Tona Henderson, has
produced a form letter of her own that residents can fill
out and send to the National Academy of Sciences.
A committee of the academy is taking public comment for a
study on nuclear fallout and public health to be submitted
to the Department of Health and Human Services, said Bill
Kearney, a spokesman for the academy. While many scientists
and medical experts have said there is a connection between
exposure to Iodine-131 and greater risk of thyroid disease
and thyroid cancer, a link between the fallout and other
diseases has not been established.
Still, in Emmett, dozens of residents have gathered in
coffee shops and farmhouses to talk about cancer. Many
furiously said they suspected their radiation exposure was
connected to their cancers.
"This whole thing is wrong," said Richard Rynearson, 62,
who is dying of colon and liver cancer, and who ran a
heating and air-conditioning business until he became too
sick to work. "Somebody needs to own up to the fact that
they messed up."
Mr. Rynearson, who recalled seeing that strange gray dust
on the dairy farm where he grew up, said he first learned
of the nuclear fallout last week.
"I always thought maybe there was something wrong in this
valley," he said. "But I would have liked to have known 10
years ago if we had this problem. Maybe I could have gotten