Almost all of the 140 million Americans alive during the nuclear bomb tests of the 1950s were exposed, in some degree, to radioactive fallout. Thirty million have died or are expected to die of cancer. Yet only a tiny fraction of those cases — no more than 16,000 — can be attributed to nuclear fallout, say three researchers from the National Cancer Institute in a study published in January.
That estimate is low, say some
fallout victims’ advocates. They worry that the study lends
support to a recommendation that would significantly decrease the
number of downwinders covered by a federal compensation program.
The study follows a 2005 National Academy of Sciences
report that recommended scrapping the geography-based standards of
the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). That 1990 law
provides payments to downwinders suffering from certain cancers who
lived in parts of Nevada, Arizona and Utah during the tests. The
Academy report said radioactive fallout was likely not a
"substantial contributing cause of cancer," and it recommended
compensation be based on medical evidence instead of location.
Yet it’s difficult to prove that fallout exposure
caused a given case of cancer, downwinders say, and developing new
compensation standards could take years. "The government might as
well say there is not going to be any more compensation," says Tona
Henderson, an activist in Emmett, Idaho, who has lost 10 family
members to cancers she believes were induced by fallout.
While Congress debates how to change RECA, Sen. Mike Crapo.,
R-Idaho, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.,
introduced legislation in December to extend compensation to their
states, which have counties that were among the hardest hit by
fallout. Downwinders suffering from cancer are running out of time,
says Henderson: "They should include us in RECA now and study us