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Questions haunt many Downwinders

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A Malad, Idaho, man who was part of a study of possible connections between atomic testing fallout in southern Utah and thyroid abnormalities is dismayed federal officials are ending the study before all subjects could be examined.

J Truman, who grew up in Enterprise, Washington County, says his earliest memory is sitting on his father's knee, watching the sky light up during an atomic bomb test at the nearby Nevada Test Site.

He "never forgot it, nor how it scared me," he says. Today he is the director of Downwinders, the anti-atomic testing activist group that tracks the health effects of fallout from bomb tests conducted in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Truman was among the school students in Washington County in 1965 who form the core subjects for the study of possible connections between fallout and thyroid abnormalities.

Dr. Joseph L. Lyon of the University of Utah has been conducting the study for the past 3 1/2 years. But because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is refusing to fund it further, the study is ending after examining 1,700 of about 4,500 subjects that include a control group from Arizona.

Lyon said Monday that researchers will be notifying hundreds about thyroid abnormalities and advising them to seek medical follow-up.

For 40 years, Truman said, there has been no definitive answer to "the question most important to all the thousands of residents of Washington County — school kids when we started — what the fallout did to us. What risks of cancer and other thyroid disorders did it leave us with? What medical nightmares may the future hold?"

Answers still are not available, he wrote in an e-mail, "simply because CDC doesn't feel like signing a check to finish the study!"

Lyon pointed out that the CDC paid close to $50 million to study possible health effects from radiation at the nuclear weapons laboratory at Hanford, Wash. That study came up with no association between the radiation and health effects, he said.

"We're at $8 million," he added, referring to the U. study.

"We're saying we have found an association (between fallout and health effects) and these people do have problems, and they need further follow-up. And the answer from the government is, 'Yeah, we're not interested.' "

CDC director Dr. Julie Louise Gerberding wrote earlier this year: "The scientific quality of the study was questioned by external scientific reviews. . . . Both reviews focused on the lack of scientifically defensible dosimetry (the method of measuring how much radiation was absorbed in a single exposure), power and treatment of uncertainty. Those issues form the foundation upon which the study is based."

Lyon wrote two letters to the CDC challenging those statements.

In the shorter version, dated April 29, he spells out the study's responses:

"The dosimetry model we have developed and are using in this study has been rigorously reviewed and is widely accepted by radiation researchers as the most advanced work in this area. There is no basis upon which to criticize this model as being scientifically unsound," he wrote.

The researchers carried out "multiple power calculations, which have included taking into account associated uncertainties, for your agency and the National Academy of Science. We have always demonstrated that we have sufficient statistical power to conduct this study."

The team did a great deal of work on the uncertainties associated with the dosimetry model. It "demonstrated that explicitly accounting for uncertainties actually increased, rather than decreased, the measured risk of thyroid disease due to radiation exposure."

The process used by CDC to review the team's latest grant application "was stacked to deliver a negative review on scientific questions that we had been told by CDC and previous reviewers were settled." The word "stacked" was in italics.

"The public has not been involved in an advisory capacity on this study, despite being the largest single environmental carcinogenic exposure in Utah" as well as in the United States, he wrote.

"Gerberding didn't even respond to the letter," Lyon said.

The CDC did not respond to a Deseret Morning News request for comments on the latest developments.

Morale among his team is not good, Lyon said.

"The assumption was, this is an important study," he said. "But we're all finding there's little interest from the politicians. And from the standpoint of the CDC, they did not want to see this study continued."

E-mail: bau@desnews.com