TULAROSA, N.M.—Nearly 70 years after the U.S. conducted the world’s first atomic-bomb test here in the New Mexico desert, federal researchers are slated to visit the state this month to begin studying whether some residents developed cancer due to the blast.
As part of the long anticipated project, set to start Sept. 25, investigators with the National Cancer Institute will interview people who lived in the state around the time of the 1945 Trinity test and assess the effects of consuming food, milk and water that may have been contaminated by the explosion.
For years, residents of the rural, heavily Hispanic villages near the test site have claimed that a mysterious wave of cancer has swept through this dusty stretch of south-central New Mexico, decimating families and prompting calls for the government to determine whether radiation exposure played a role.
"I don’t think there’s a family in this community that hasn’t had a loved one die of cancer," said Ray Cordova, the mayor of Tularosa, an old Spanish settlement of 3,000 people about 35 miles from the Trinity site. Mr. Cordova, a 75-year-old former magistrate judge, had a brother die of several types of cancer, and he has a son with a brain tumor.The study will be the most detailed examination yet of the health effects of the Trinity test, which was carried out on July 16, 1945, just weeks before the U.S. used an atomic bomb for the first time on Hiroshima, Japan. Government scientists had been rushing to develop nuclear weapons in hopes of ending World War II.
The study will invariably explore the darker side of the Manhattan Project, which has played a storied role in New Mexico’s economy and history. It also potentially could lead to residents’ receiving compensation under a federal program for people who became ill after being exposed to radiation from nuclear testing, which currently doesn’t include individuals who lived near the Trinity site.
"It’s pretty clear that if you are downwind of a release of radioactive material, you have the potential to be exposed. And it’s pretty clear that if you are exposed, you are at some increased risk," said Steve Simon, a government physicist who is leading the study and specializes in radiation dosages. "But to quantify it, I’m not there yet."
It is still unclear how much radiation was absorbed by New Mexicans due to fallout from the explosion, which coated backyards with ash and singed cattle. Earlier studies didn’t fully consider the entire spectrum of exposure from the Trinity test. A previously unreleased draft report from the National Cancer Institute viewed by The Wall Street Journal estimated that some year old children exposed to the blast likely received large internal radiation dosages in their thyroid glands.According to the 2008 report, the thyroid doses for a one-year-old child affected by the explosion were estimated to be about 30 times as high as what adults received. The report contains preliminary estimates based on the limited data available. Experts noted that it is difficult to reconstruct the radioactive impact of an event so long ago.
Still, a 2009 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that because people living near the Trinity site typically consumed homegrown vegetables and local livestock products, their internal radiation dosages could have posed significant health risks.
A health physicist who was a primary researcher for the CDC report said he expected the new study to find that some people living downwind of the Trinitytest site received higher radiation dosages than those living near the Nevada site where the U.S. conducted aboveground nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s. Individuals who lived downwind of the Nevada site during specific time periods are eligible for federal compensation.
The physicist, Joe Shonka, said he was surprised during his research at how close residents lived to the Trinity blast—in some cases within 20 miles. Moreover, the subsistence diets of locals, including using cistern water that was likely to be heavily contaminated by the blast, made the Trinity test unique compared with other nuclear tests on U.S. soil, he said.”Trinity created a lot more extensive fallout than had been encountered at other nuclear tests,” he said. “There is no question the exposures for some people are going to be higher than at the Nevada test site.” The pilot phase of the National Cancer Institute study this month will focus on the diet and lifestyle of people alive during the time of the Trinity test, and include interviews with nine Hispanic and Native American residents. Researchers plan to speak with dozens more people after the study’s full scope get federal approval, which is expected in the next nine months.
Dr. Simon, the study’s leader, cautioned that it was unlikely to reach definitive conclusions, noting that the prevalence of cancer in the general population is already high—about 40% of people will develop cancer at some point, according to the National Cancer Institute.
For some here, though, the Institute’s involvement represents at least some acknowledgment of their fears. A group called the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, co-founded by Mr. Cordova’s niece, Tina, a thyroid cancer survivor, has long pushed for scientists to see if there is a link between cancer cases and the Trinity test.
In 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which provides $50,000 payments to individuals who lived downwind of the Nevada test site and contracted certain cancers and other serious diseases after radiation exposure. Sen. Tom Udall (D., N.M.) has sponsored a bill to make Trinity “downwinders” eligible for the compensationprogram, but the measure has failed to advance in Congress for several years. In Tularosa, a devoutly Catholic town where cottonwood trees line country lanes, many who were alive during the Trinity test have since died, complicating research efforts. But some can still recall the morning of July 16, 1945, including Henry Herrera. As an 11-year-old, he was outside his home saying goodbye to his father as he headed to work when he heard a thunderousboom, saw the sky flash orange and watched a massive plume drift up over the desert. Now 80, Mr. Herrera is in remission for cancer of his salivary gland. He knows many who have succumbed to cancer, including his brother and nephew, and he describes a sadness that still hangs over Tularosa. “Whole families have died here,” he said. “But nobody has ever said nothing to us.”
If everyone is a product of this society, who will say the things that need to be said, and do the things that need to be done, without compromise? Truth will never start out popular in a world more concerned with marketability than righteousness. It will initially suffer ridicule and even violence — yet ultimately it is undeniable. All of humanity is living in a dream world, but suffering real consequences.