Compensation for Utah ‘downwinder’ cancer victims set to expire in 2022

SALT LAKE CITY — Raised in picturesque Iron County, Claudia Peterson’s childhood was perfect.

“In the summer we slept outside. We were supposed to go fishing on Saturday,” said Peterson. “It was all family. It was a great childhood.”

How could she know that the air she breathed, the food she ate, the milk she drank were all poisoned with ionizing radiation.

“They would tell us we were okay. What they were doing at the test site,” Peterson recalled.

Sixty-five miles north of Las Vegas, nearly 1,000 nuclear tests were conducted at the Nevada test site, 100 of which were above ground. Meanwhile, fallout from the bomb tests drifted east over southern Utah.

At the time, the Atomic Energy Commission promised the tests were safe, even though government scientists knew that fallout could harm and kill people “downwind.” Then men in fancy suits came to school to test the children for radioactivity.

“There were two or three of us that let it go off. We thought ‘cool’ because we lit up the Geiger counters,” said Peterson.

First, a herd of 5.00 head of cattle died. By sixth grade, classmates got sick and died.

“These were children. These were my friends,” said Peterson. “Then my friend’s mother got sick, and then it started to snow a little bit.”

Cancer knocked on the Peterson family’s door when Claudia’s father died at age 64 of brain tumors, which doctors believe are linked to the consequences.

“Three years later, almost to the day, Bethany was diagnosed with neuroblastoma.”

Claudia’s 3-year-old daughter had stage 4 cancer. An orange-sized tumor grew in her abdomen, followed by leukemia when she was six years old.

The doctor then diagnosed Claudia’s 37-year-old sister with melanoma.

The two died a month apart in 1987.

“All these years, there’s still a physical pain to think about it,” says Peterson. “You’d think all those years, you’d think it’s doable. The first 10 years were excruciating.”

In southern Utah, an estimated 60,000 people were exposed to fallout, including former Governor Scott Matheson.

“My father lived in Cedar City in the 1950s and he told me he would get up and watch the sky light up from the blast at the Nevada test site,” said former Representative Jim Matheson, son of Scott Matheson.

Still refusing to admit that it poisoned thousands of people, Governor Matheson pushed for a Congressional investigation in 1979. It exposed false reports and government fraud about the dangers of nuclear testing.

“The government told everyone it was safe. They actually knew it wasn’t safe and they lied about it,” Matheson said. “When we got those documents released, we got the evidence.”

Scott Matheson also died of cancer believed to be related to nuclear fallout. In 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act

The legislation provides for a one-time cash payment of $50,000 to people living in certain Utah counties during the atmospheric tests who developed specific cancers related to exposure to ionizing radiation.

The law also provides grants for free cancer screenings at several clinics, including one in St. George to help victims and their families. However, the Justice Department plans to close it in July 2022.

Registered nurse Carolyn Rasmussen is rushing to help victims and their families qualify for compensation before the law expires next summer. The Congress-settled fund has spent nearly $2.5 billion on 38,000 approved claims.

Some argue that the act is “sunset”, as many victims are only now getting sick.

“The youngest people exposed in July 2022 will only be 60 years old. This is the age where we would start to see more of those cancers,” Rasmussen said. “Someone who saw leukemias that we saw early in small children, but a lot of the other cancers don’t show up until much older age. “

Critics argue that the $50,000 compensation to “downwinders” was never enough to begin with and excluded too many people.

“Fallout didn’t just affect those people in the areas covered by the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act… it went everywhere,” said cancer survivor Mary Dickson.

Although Dickson lived in Salt Lake City, she is confident that her diagnosis of thyroid cancer at age 29 is related to fallout. More than 50 neighbors and her sisters also became ill.

“We really think we were one of those pockets,” Dickson added. “We lived in Parleys Canyon and there was a study at the university that showed the precipitation would go into the canyon and come back at night with the canyon breeze and we got a double dose.”

Downwinder experts believe fallout flew much further than previously thought

“For me, this is the tragedy of this act,” Dickson said. “It was a start. It was never inclusive enough. They tried to cover all of Utah in the beginning, but they thought it would be harder to succeed.”

With the current law expiring next year, proponents are pushing for Congress to pass another bill to compensate downwinders. However, they find little support in Washington, DC.

“It’s really an open question about how effectively we keep this story going and make sure there’s awareness for the next generation. We need to tell the story,” Matheson said.

“If it’s wrong, we have to change it,” added Peterson, who says the consequences have forever changed her family’s genetics, causing cancer in the second and third generations.

For them, she will not stop fighting.

“We followed blindly because we were told we were safe and we weren’t.”

And while a number of bills are expected to expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, the Utah Congressional Delegation has not formally supported them.

Comments are closed.