One by one, they came up to the microphone to tell their heartbreaking stories of how cancer had affected their lives. Downwinders in Utah who have not been eligible for compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) have another chance to make their cases for inclusion. After a lot of public pressure, the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) Board on Radiation Effects Research held its final hearing (the first hearing was held in St. George this past December) July 29 on expanding RECA coverage, taking testimony from "downwinders," as we're called.
Whether they live in Price, St. George, Tremonton or Salt Lake City, Utahns know what nuclear testing conducted in Nevada during the Cold War years did to them. The Utah State Legislature knows it, too. On the last day of a legislative session noted for its acrimonious bills on everything from concealed weapons to gay marriage, legislators sent one important message that didn't make the papers; all of Utah was hit with radioactive fallout during the years of nuclear testing.
The vast majority of downwinders in this country don't realize they are downwinders. Most Americans continue to assume that atomic testing affected only remote parts of Utah. But radiation does not respect arbitrary lines on a map. It is picked up by the jet stream and carried across the country, where it rains out at random. That's how it got to the Midwest and as far as New York .
House Joint Resolution (HJR) 20, which passed unanimously, urges Congress to expand compensation for radiation-related illnesses from nuclear testing to downwinders in all Utah counties. Currently only 10 counties in Southern Utah are included under RECA, even though radiation illnesses have plagued Utahns statewide. To date, only 4,700 Utahns have been compensated for cancers they developed as a result of radioactive fallout from nuclear testing. But, many downwinders have argued that RECA didn't go far enough. The state legislature agreed.
HJR20 had its roots back in December, following the public hearings, when the NAS began studying whether compensation should be expanded to include other counties and other cancers. County Commissioners from Sanpete, Grand, Emery and Juab Counties were among those testifying at the day-long hearing. Noting that radiation didn't stop at county lines, all urged the board to include their counties for compensation. Commissioners told countless stories of how people in their counties have suffered and died due to the legacy of nuclear testing.
"We're not covered, yet we breath the same air and drink from the same rivers," Sanpete County Commissioner Bruce Blackham told the board.
HJR-20, introduced by Darin Peterson (R-Nephi), originally asked Congress to add Sanpete, Grand, Emery and Juab Counties to eligibility under RECA. But, Rep. Eli Anderson (D-Tremonton), who lost three family members to cancer, introduced a friendly amendment to add all Utah counties. According to Preston Truman, director of Downwinders, every county in Utah received levels of radiation higher than those received by Lander County, Nev., which is eligible for RECA. In addition, counties in the Wasatch Front received fallout levels two to four times as high as some Utah counties currently covered by RECA.
While the Utah State Legislature has no authority over RECA, legislators are sending an important, as well as timely, message to Congress that all of Utah was affected by nuclear testing. The NAS currently is taking written testimony from downwinders. The window of opportunity for submitting testimony is very short with a cut-off date of August 31.
To submit testimony, send an email to Dr. Isaf Al-Nabulsi at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don't worry about what to say; when you begin telling your personal story of how cancer has affected you and your loved ones, the words just seem to flow.
As I wrote the testimony that I would be submitting to the committee, I couldn't help but think about all of the friends, relatives and acquaintances in Carbon County who have suffered and, in so many cases, died from the horrible affects of cancer. This fact was cemented in my mind this week as I visited with Bob Etzel from Mitchell's Funeral Home and heard him say that between 30 and 40 percent of all Carbon County deaths are due to cancer.
I stood before the committee and told them that every person in my immediate family has now had cancer. My father died of brain cancer in 1987; I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995; my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1999, followed by my brother who was diagnosed with colon cancer two months ago.
I wasn't the only person from Carbon County to testify before the committee that day. Michael Rachiele talked about dealing with diabetes, while one of his sisters and a cousin battle daily with lupus and another sister suffers from severe arthritis.
Michael's story and mine represent just "the tip of the iceberg" when it comes to people who have suffered the affects of fallout. I'm writing this editorial to encourage the people of Carbon County to share their personal stories, to encourage Congress to expand RECA compensation to our entire state, and to let their Congressional representatives know that we are appalled by the fact that Congress plans to resume testing again in Nevada in 2007.
Congressman Jim Matheson was present at the July hearings to speak out on behalf of all Utahns. He will also be in Price on August 31 and will be available to talk to constituents about what he is trying to accomplish regarding the issue of fallout. The meeting will take place at Pioneer Park that evening between 6 - 8 p.m. Matheson who truly empathasizes with those of us who have been plagued by cancer. His father Ã¯Â¿Â½ and our former governor Ã¯Â¿Â½ died from multiple myeloma, a compensable disease.
More information on RECA can be had by visiting the Department of Justice Web site at www.usdoj.gov/civil/torts/const/reca or by calling 1-800-729-7327.
As downwinders have been saying for years, "equal exposure deserves equal compensation." HJR-20 is a good first step in recognizing that there are far more downwinders than those who have already been compensated.