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Downwinders Be Damned


Just as the Bush administration contemplates ordering up a new generation of nuclear weapons, which may in turn spark a new round of nuclear testing in the high deserts of Nevada, the Center for Disease Control, a federal outpost in Atlanta charged with supervising the nation’s physical well-being, pulled the plug on a long-term study into the dire health consequences from nuclear testing in the 1950s and 1960s on people living in the American southwest.

The study, which has been underway for seven years, has been tracking the thyroid conditions of 4,000 former students who lived in southwestern Utah and eastern Nevada in 1965, at the height of testing of nuclear weapons at the Nevada Test Site. The lead researcher, Dr. Joseph L. Lyons, a professor at the University of Utah, was informed via a curtly worded letter on March 21 that funding for the study had been inexplicably yanked.

The letter terminating the research in midstream was written by Michael A. McGeehin, director of the CDC’s Division of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects. McGeehin claimed the study was killed because of financial considerations. “The CDC does not have the resources to extend funding for this study beyond the current budget period,” McGeehin wrote. “We recommend that you take measures to close out this study by the end of the current budget period, which will occur on August 31, 2005.”

The Utah Thyroid Disease Study hardly seems like a financial burden on the federal purse. In seven years, the investigation into thyroid cancers linked to radioactive fallout has cost the federal treasury only $8,049,988, roughly the amount the Pentagon spends every two hours in Iraq. Or consider this: from 1990 to 1995, the federal government spent more than $90 million in legal fees to fight off claims from downwinders and workers at nuclear weapons plants over the health consequences of bomb-making and testing.

Lyons believes, with good reason, that the study was axed for political reasons. “The only interpretation I can put on it is that the Bush administration doesn’t want to know the health effects of fallout on American citizens,” Lyons told the Deseret News.

The scientist also said it was an extremely rare occurrence for the CDC to pull funding in the middle of a major study. “I’ve never know it to happen before,” says Lyons, who has been researching the links between cancer and fallout since 1977.

Located 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, the Nevada Test Site, established in 1951, sprawls over 1,500 square miles of desert basin and range country. Between 1951 and 1992, the Pentagon and Department of Energy conducted at least 925 nuclear blasts at the site, more than 100 of the explosions were above ground, open-air tests, which cast a radioactive pall over much of the American West. Even the underground tests vented plumes of radiation.

A 1997 study by the National Cancer Institute reported that the fallout from the blasts deposited large amounts of radioactive iodine across the lower-48 states. The report concluded that the contamination was so severe that it may cause as many as 70,000 cases of thyroid cancer alone. By way of comparison, that’s 65,000 more casualties than Saddam Hussein is alleged to have caused in his poison gas attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988.

It was Lyons’s groundbreaking study in 1979 for the New England Journal of Medicine which proved that radioactive fallout from the open-air nuclear tests in Nevada had lead to increased incidents of cancer in communities downwind of the blasts. A subsequent study demonstrated that those same downwind communities faced an increased likelihood of leukemia deaths. These two reports prompted Congress to finally enact a fallout compensation measure for downwinders.

In 1993, Lyons and his colleagues began studying the thyroid conditions of former school children who lived downwind of the blasts. That research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that the schoolchildren exposed to the highest levels of radiation were 3.4 times more likely to suffer from thyroid tumors than would be expected.

These same students had been monitored by federal researchers until 1970, who, unsurprisingly, claimed not to have found any link between exposure to fallout and thyroid tumors. But Lyons and his colleagues began examining those students as adults and found that 58 of the former downwinders had nodules on their thyroids. Of those, 8 were malignant tumors and 11 were benign tumors.

This initial study buttressed the theory held by Lyons and many other scientists that there is a lifetime risk to fallout exposure and that thyroid problems in particular develop very slowly across a span of decades. These results prompted Lyons to apply for funding from the CDC for a larger study that would examine the thyroid conditions of all 4,000 former schoolchildren in southwestern Utah and eastern Nevada, who were originally identified in 1965 as being exposed to the most extreme levels of fallout from the blasts. The incidence of thyroid problems in those students was to be compared to a control group in Safford, Arizona.

One of the initial problems Lyons ran into was the realization that the radioactive fallout extended farther than he anticipated, meaning that most of the population of Safford had also been exposed to radiation, though in much smaller doses. Fallout has gone global. When it comes to thermonuclear weapons, we all live downwind.

By the end of last year, the researchers had tracked down more than 90 percent of the former students, most of whom agreed to be examined for the study. “We’ve already reported that there’s an excess of tumors of the thyroid gland,” Lyons said. “And we’ve got pretty strong indications that there are other disease problems that ought to be looked at.”

Originally, Lyons planned to have the study completed within five years. But he encountered continual meddling and roadblocks from the CDC that consumed both time and much of the grant money. “The federal government put all kinds of bureaucratic hurdles in our path that were not part of the original agreement,” Lyons contends.

The agreement called for Lyons research to be overseen by the University of Utah. Then the CDC said that the study needed to be scrutinized by an institutional review board at the CDC, a requirement that delayed the research by two years. Next the CDC informed Lyons that he had to submit the plans for his study to a panel at the National Academy of Sciences, an inquisition that lasted another two years. Then the CDC called for a yet another review of Lyons’s methodology by a three-person panel at the Department of Energy.

When Lyons and his colleagues finally got out into the field and began to get results, the CDC pulled the plug. “Essentially, they said, ‘Tough luck, we don’t want your study’,” said Lyons. “I’ve been working on this now since 1977. I’m about to retire and I’d really like to finish up this thyroid study and get some definitive answers.”

Those answers might prove to be unsettling for the Bush administration as it pursues a new generation of nuclear weapons and grooms the killing grounds of the Nevada Test Site for another go-round of nuclear blasts.

People are getting sick and dying the American Southwest and the Bush administration doesn’t want them to learn why.

Downwinders be damned.

For more information on visit:

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature. This essay is excerpted from his forthcoming book Grand Theft Pentagon, to be published in July by Common Courage Press.






Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at:

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