‘The clock is ticking’: Downwinders call for congressional aid to fallout victims

Nov 6, 2023, 4:42 PM

Steve Erickson, downwinder advocate, speaks at a press conference calling on Utah's congressional d...

Steve Erickson, downwinder advocate, speaks at a press conference calling on Utah's congressional delegation to support the legislative expansion of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in front of the Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023.

SALT LAKE CITY — Mary Dickson describes living an “idyllic childhood” near the rim of Parleys Canyon: drinking milk from the local dairy, playing in puddles of rainwater and mixing vanilla, sugar, and snow in the winter to pretend it was ice cream.

What she didn’t know was she was living downwind of nuclear fallout from nuclear weapons testing in Nevada. As a downwinder, Dickson’s generation has been plagued with cancers and autoimmune diseases likely the result of that radiation exposure.

“My sister died in 2001 of the autoimmune disease that had debilitated her for nine years,” Dickson said Monday at a press conference outside the Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building in Salt Lake City. “I’ve mourned the dead and comforted the living, vowing to tell our stories. Of all the downwinders I worked most closely with in Utah, I’m the only one still living. One of them told me before she died: ‘You have to keep fighting.'”

Dickson has continued to fight, and on Monday joined with HEAL Utah to call on Utah’s congressmen to back an amendment to the upcoming National Defense Authorization Act that would expand and extend benefits to help people who were suffering after being exposed to radiation.

Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) in 1990, providing partial restitution to people suffering from illnesses linked to radiation exposure from nuclear sources, but that bill includes only several southern Utah counties, leaving downwinders from northern Utah to fend for themselves. RECA is set to expire next year, but several senators from Western states are sponsoring a proposal to extend RECA another 19 years.

HEAL Utah and downwinders like Dickson are urging Utahns to contact their congressmen in support of extending RECA.

John Callahan, a cancer-science researcher, said he was “stopped short” when he saw research and modeling that radiation from the Trinity Test and Nevada Test Site spread throughout the Intermountain West, not just southern Utah, northern Arizona, and Nevada.

“Now, this was a needle-scratcher for me because my wife died of cancer 20 years ago,” he said. “She was born in 1963 in Salt Lake City and she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer at the age of 33. At the time, I thought it was just a string of bad luck, but a large number of my friends in their 30s and 40s contracted pancreatic cancer, brain cancer.”

Dickson said the current benefits for downwinders can help, but the $50,000 most Utah downwinders are eligible for only makes a dent in most expensive cancer treatments. The RECA extension in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act would increase the benefits to help offset some costs of inflation and more expensive treatments.

“It’s not too late for our representatives to join them in supporting this critical legislation. To our delegation, I say, your constituents are counting on you,” she said. “Please do right by all of us. The clock is ticking. The current RECA expires at the end of June and this may very well be our last chance.”

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‘The clock is ticking’: Downwinders call for congressional aid to fallout victims