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Idaho downwinders face struggles

Residents still not eligible for compensation

POCATELLO — Six-year-old Valerie Brown didn't know what the wind brought.

She skipped rope with other kids at Greenacres Elementary and paid little attention to the breezes whistling northbound through the Portneuf Gap.

Brown graduated from Highland High School in 1968 and left Pocatello to attend college in Oregon. But the wind caught up with her.

Brown was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at age 24 in 1975, the result, she strongly believes, of exposure to radiation caused by bomb tests in Nevada in the 1950s.

She has suffered several benign tumors and takes synthetic hormones to help the scarred remnants of her thyroid function properly. She isn't bitter, but sometimes she can't help wondering, "What if I had been a healthy person?"

Many Idahoans have come forward with similar stories of cancer, joining hundreds of others across the country known as the generation of the afflicted — the downwinders.

The consequences of 90 bomb tests that took place between 1951 and 1962 weren't made public until a National Cancer Institute study was released in 1997.

The study identified four Idaho counties — Gem, Blaine, Custer and Lemhi — among the five hardest hit counties nationally in terms of doses of radioactive iodine.

Since winds from the Nevada Test Site typically carried the radioactive nuclear fallout, specifically iodine-131, to the north and east, certain counties in Utah, Arizona and Nevada are eligible for compensation. But not Idaho.

Many were exposed to the radiation by drinking milk at a young age. Winds carried the fallout to alfalfa fields where it was ingested by cows, distributed in milk and consumed by people, especially children.

But despite the evidence presented in the 1997 study, Idahoans still are not eligible for the $50,000 compensation.

With the NCI study, it's apparent the harm was far more widespread than the law takes into account, said Beatrice Brailsford, program director of the Pocatello branch of the Snake River Alliance, a nuclear watchdog group.

Brailsford and many others are pushing for Idaho to be included in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

"We're all in the red," she said in regard to radiation maps of Idaho. "Some areas are a little lighter red, but none of us are unaffected."

According to a recent article in the Idaho Statesman, Sen. Larry Craig and Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (who was a senator at the time) pledged in 1997 to get to the bottom of the incident.

Idahoans are still waiting.

Unlike most of the other Gem State natives who have came forward, Brown grew up in Bannock County.

"I was born over on West Wyeth Street and then we moved over to Hyde Avenue," Brown recalls.

When she was diagnosed with cancer, Brown was stunned and confused.

"What they told me was, 'We don't know what causes it, but we know that a lot of young women get it,' " she said.

She initially thought of the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory and FMC, both near Pocatello, but didn't think much of atomic bomb tests that occurred hundreds of miles away.

She also didn't think much about drinking unpasteurized milk on her uncle's farm near Wendell.

Then an aunt and younger sister were diagnosed with breast cancer. A first cousin had already suffered uterine cancer and her mother was later diagnosed with leukemia and underwent chemotherapy. And last year, Brown's father died in Boise from what the family believes to be prostate cancer.

While the exact cause for cancer can be nearly impossible to pinpoint, the evidence seemed overwhelming.

When the cancer study came out in 1997, Brown felt like the puzzle pieces finally fit together. Except none of her family would be compensated.

While Brown estimates her total doctors bill to be more than $50,000, she isn't just after the money.

"What I would like is for the government to stop doing things to people without their knowledge," she said. "People who enlist in the Army know they're putting their life at risk."

People who are playing in their yard didn't give consent.

Brown said developing cancer at a young age left an indelible mark on her life.

It changes everything, she said. "You get a mosquito bite and it makes you wonder, Is this a tumor?"

Brailsford said stories like Brown's are powerful testimony at a time when the United States has taken steps to revive its nuclear programs.

"Every weapon is a boomerang," Brailsford said.

Today, Brown works as a writer in Portland and dedicates much of her energy to writing about environmental health issues.

Alleged reports that scientists waited until winds were blowing toward less-populated Idaho before detonating bombs in the Nevada desert particularly rankle Brown.

Her parents left the Gate City in 1978 and she hasn't been back for any extended length of time since her 20th high school reunion.

Still, she listens to the wind and ponders the innocent years of her childhood.

"I've lived my life under the shadow of the thing," she said.