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'They said it was safe when they knew it wasn't': Utah downwinders archive scrutinizes fallout from nuclear testing

Published October 3, 2016 6:47 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Growing up in the Canyon Rim area of Salt Lake County, Mary Dickson and her sister kept a list of their friends and neighbors who died of leukemia, lymphoma and other cancers.

Dickson was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 1985, and by the time her sister died of lupus in 2001, the list of the dead included 54 people who lived within a five-block area, she said.

"So many have died that one of my schoolmates, years later, said he felt lucky to have made it to age 40," Dickson said.

Dickson shared her story Monday at the launch of the Downwinders of Utah Archive, an interactive collection of maps, videos and documents related to nuclear fallout from Nevada weapons testing between 1945 and 1992.

While she can't prove it definitively, Dickson said she, her sister and her neighbors are all "downwinders," or victims of radioactive material released into the atmosphere by the United States government.

"We trusted the government when it told us we had nothing to fear and repeatedly said there was no danger," she said. "How were any of us to know that a silent poison was threading its way through our bodies — that many of us would get sick and some of us would die?"

The Downwinders of Utah Archive is administered by the University of Utah's J. Willard Marriott Library. The collection is available online at www.downwindersofutah.org, and includes documents, audio and video recordings, oral history interviews and animated re-creations of the nuclear blasts detonated at the Nevada Test Site.

In one audio clip, a radio warning alerts residents of St. George to stay indoors as a change in wind is pushing the cloud from a nuclear test in their direction. The radio warning emphasizes residents' safety, adding that area schools have been instructed to not allow outdoor recess as a precaution.

"There is no danger," the voice in the clip says. "This is simply a routine safety procedure."

Former Utah Congressman Jim Matheson said the archive documents illustrate years of intentional deception by government officials.

"They lied to people," he said. "They said it was safe when they knew it wasn't. There's no doubt about that."

He said the Downwinders Archive is a valuable reminder of the lingering damage of nuclear testing, which will hopefully impede similar testing from resuming within the United States.

"This treasure trove of information that is here in that archive is going to be the basis of how we can remind people in the future of what this really means," he said.

While St. George saw uniquely high levels of fallout from the tests, Dickson said the effects of radiation were not limited to southern Utah. She said a map of fallout areas shows most of Utah covered in ink, with lines of radioactive sediment spreading east through the plains, the midwest and into the East Coast.

Material from the nuclear tests, she said, made its way into the atmosphere to be rained down throughout the nation, affecting the food supply, and contributing to genetic mutations and illnesses that will be passed on for generations.

"Radioactive fallout from those four decades of nuclear testing has left a devastating legacy," Dickson said. "Not only in Utah, which was directly downwind from the test site, but across our entire country."


Twitter: @bjaminwood






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