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Justice Delayed



She is 61 and had thyroid cancer followed by surgery and radiation treatments. Two years after her diagnosis, she went on disability. Now she has myriad health problems. Sylvia Gardener of Vernal phoned me with one question last week. Will she be eligible for compensation from the federal government for her fallout-related cancer?

Her question came in the wake of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report on expanding compensation to downwinders under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). The academy held four public hearings—three of them only after being pressured by the public—to take testimony from downwinders and experts alike before making recommendations to Congress. Gardener has been waiting since last year for the NAS to release its report.

Like many downwinders, she’s confused by what’s in the 387-page report. The NAS admits fallout from nuclear tests in Nevada affected every county in the country and that some areas not eligible under RECA, like Salt Lake County, were exposed to higher amounts of fallout than were RECA-covered counties. This is a major admission, although hardly new information.

Citing the National Cancer Institute’s 1997 study, the NAS says Congress shouldn’t limit compensation to current geographic boundaries. That’s good news, since it implies that downwinders across the country could be eligible for compensation. Currently, only 21 rural counties in Nevada, Arizona and southern Utah are eligible, which has always been a major flaw of the compensation program.

Here’s where the NAS report gets tricky. Under RECA, compensation is based on if you lived in a certain county during certain years and got a certain kind of cancer. Now, the NAS says Congress should rely on hard scientific evidence to set new eligibility requirements. Those requirements may not be a problem for downwinders like Sylvia, who developed thyroid cancer, because studies show a clear link between thyroid cancer and fallout. But what about everyone else? While thyroid cancer downwinders nationwide potentially could qualify, compensation becomes more questionable for those with other fallout-related diseases. RECA currently compensates for 18 cancers, as well as leukemia and lymphoma. Downwinders with those diseases will have a harder time meeting the demands of science-based formulas because studies linking their cancers to fallout were never made—a glaring omission. Nor does the NAS recommend adding additional cancers or diseases, which rules out immune system disorders.

The NAS report recommends that studies into other cancers and diseases be undertaken, but it’s unlikely that more studies will be funded or conducted anytime soon. Remember, the Centers for Disease Control just pulled funding for a major fallout study by Dr. Joseph Lyon. As Preston Truman, the president of Downwinders says, “It’s so easy to say we need more studies. More studies mean more delays. It’s going to take years. By the time we get compensation, more people die.”

So, what’s my answer to Sylvia Gardener? These are just recommendations. We have no idea when or if Congress will act on them. You may have a better chance than others, but for most downwinders, it’s going to be virtually impossible ever to get compensation. Justice will not be served until all downwinders are equally compensated. “I doubt I’ll ever live to see it,” she sighed sadly. And that’s the worst news of all.

Mary Dickson is a survivor of thyroid cancer living in Salt Lake City who attributes her illness to fallout from nuclear testing. Her articles on downwinders have been published in books, journals and magazines.

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