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Fallout victimization absolutely not exaggerated

In a newspaper that has a proud legacy of uncovering the hard truths of what fallout from nuclear testing did to unwitting Americans living downwind, Lee Benson's column, "Are Utah Fallout Stories Grossly Exaggerated," is particularly irresponsible. Benson lent credence to retired Dixie College chemistry instructor Daniel Miles' assertion that only five to 10 people were the victims of fallout, calling the tragic stories of downwinders "urban myths."

Of course, we would all like to believe that our government's reckless program of nuclear testing did not make us sick or lead to the deaths of friends, family and other loved ones. But the evidence suggests otherwise. In fact, for every source Miles cites that minimizes the health effects of testing, we can cite sources linking fallout exposure to health consequences.

Dr. Carl J. Johnson's 1984 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, for instance, found a "startling increase" in cancer rates among residents living in an area of Utah downwind of the test site — higher rates of leukemia, lymphoma, melanoma, cancers of the breast, thyroid, colon, stomach and bone in a population that prior to testing lacked the environmental and lifestyle factors associated with cancer.

That fallout from hundreds of nuclear tests — a quarter of them more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima — affected people across the country is well-established. Data show that downwinders exist not just in southern Utah, but in northern Utah, Idaho, Montana, Missouri and New York. In 1953, independent scientists from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute documented dangerous levels of radiation blanketing their city in the wake of Shot Simon, a very dirty blast that rained out on upstate New York 2,300 miles from the test site. At the time, government meteorologists said they feared even higher levels were raining out on Missouri, where no one was recording them.

The National Cancer Institute in a major study released in 1997 concluded that every county in the continental United States got some level of fallout from nuclear testing and that as many as 212,000 cases of thyroid cancer alone may be linked to testing. That's only one radiation-related cancer. There are dozens of others, as well as radiation-related immune system and genetic disorders — some of which do not show up for decades after exposure. Factor these in and the number of illnesses is likely much higher than the NCI's 212,000 estimate.

Just last April, after sifting through countless scientific studies and taking testimony from experts and downwinders, the National Academy of Sciences Board on Radiation Effects Research acknowledged that because fallout affected people in every county in the country, limiting compensation to geographic boundaries makes no sense.

The rub has always been in the proof. Definitively establishing cause and effect, as any scientist will tell you, is impossible, whether it be fallout causing a myriad of health ills or smoking causing lung cancer. What scientists can show is a clear correlation as well as a high probability that one leads to the other.

We will never know for certain how many downwinders were created by nuclear testing. But we can be certain that fallout from 100 atmospheric tests and 828 underground tests made far more than five to 10 Americans sick. The government, incidentally, conceded that 11,000 cancer deaths during the years of testing were related to fallout.

A reliance on numbers, however, overshadows the truth of our lives. The compelling testimony of American downwinders is important evidence. Our bearing witness to the painful facts of our nation's past does not represent an inability to "separate fact from fiction," nor is it a recantation of "popular tales," as Benson implies. Our surgeries, suffering, radiation and chemotherapy treatments are very real. The death of our loved ones are not fiction. The headstones in cemeteries are not anecdotes; they are the only plaques downwinders have to the casualties of the Cold War.

Mary Dickson of Salt Lake City is the author of "Downwinders All" in the anthology "Learning to Glow, A Nuclear Reader."