Nearly 70 years after the first detonation of a nuclear weapon, the National Cancer Institute is set to begin what could be a years-long study of the health effects of the 1945 Trinity Site atomic test on New Mexico residents.
Institute scientists said the study will attempt to reconstruct the internal doses of radiation received by residents living all across New Mexico using information on their diets and other lifestyle factors, then determine possible connections to radioactive fallout from the blast to deaths and illnesses, especially from cancer, over the past seven decades.
“The goal is to determine the radiation doses [received by] the population of New Mexico living there at the time of the Trinity test,” said Jennifer Loukissas, co-investigator for Trinity on community outreach. “We plan to assess the health impact to the entire state of New Mexico.”
Trinity downwinders, especially some of those living closest to the test-blast site, expressed gratitude that such a health study is being conducted but also frustration that it wasn’t undertaken long before now.
“This has been a long time in coming,” said Tina Cordova, a cancer survivor who grew up in Tularosa and is now leader of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders’ Consortium. The group has been battling for about 10 years to include Trinity downwinders in federal legislation that has acknowledged and compensated other downwinders of above-ground U.S. nuclear testing in the 1950s and early ’60s. The legislation ignored communities downwind from the Trinity Site, about 80 miles north of Alamogordo on what is now the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range.
However, the scientists and workers at the detonation site were included in the legislation, originally enacted in 1990 and known as the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.
Some ranchers, residents of nearby towns and members of the Mescalero Apache community have blamed the July 16, 1945, detonation of The Gadget, a 21-kiloton plutonium device — the same size and composition as the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, a few weeks later — for decades of illnesses and deaths.
“We were unwilling, unknowing and uncompensated participants in the world’s largest science experiment,” Cordova said.
The NCI study follows — and was prompted by — a recently concluded 10-year study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC had studied historical records on the release of radionuclides and other hazardous materials from the Los Alamos National Laboratory dating back to the beginning of the Manhattan Project in the early 1940s. A major part of the study was devoted to the detonation and radioactive fallout from the Trinity device.
Known as the Los Alamos Historical Document Retrieval and Assessment project, the study’s researchers concluded that “the local terrain and wind patterns caused ‘hot spots’ where higher amounts of radioactive materials settled. … Radiation levels near some homes were almost 10,000 times what is currently allowed in public areas.”
The study also found that nearby residents were never warned before the blast, nor informed of health hazards afterward, and that no one was evacuated before or after the detonation. The study also raised doubts about the validity of measurements taken at the time concerning the movement and makeup of the radioactive cloud and levels of radiation in the fallout because of the primitive nature of the instruments used to assess such factors and lack of effective communication among fallout monitoring teams.
In a December 2010 letter to Department of Energy officials, Michael McGeehin, an Environmental Health Division director at the CDC, recommended that, because of the project’s findings, further studies be done concerning health and safety issues stemming from the Trinity detonation.
“In that report they specifically mentioned the need for this work,” Loukissas said of the CDC report. She added that the NCI researchers will be working with the same community groups and leaders as the CDC, including Las Mujeres Hablan — a Native American nuclear-watch group.
She said the NCI will conduct the study using previously gathered information, dietary and lifestyle surveys of residents alive at the time of the detonation, as well as information from the New Mexico Tumor Registry, New Mexico’s universities and the Office of the State Historian.
A major focus will be on the diets and lifestyles of people who were children at the time of the blast “We are looking for men and women, probably more women than men, who can comment on the diet and lifestyle of the children they cared for,” Loukissas said. “They don’t have to be the mothers, necessarily. They could be the older siblings, they could be the cousins and aunts.”
A summary of the planned NCI study notes that: “Of particular importance is information on the consumption of cow, sheep, and goat milk and fresh cheeses by those who were infants and children at the time of the test. Contaminated dairy products may be an important source of radiation exposure from fallout from the Trinity test — this pathway of contamination has been observed in other cases of nuclear fallout, such as the Chernobyl accident.”
Radiation health physicist Steve Simon, the lead scientist on the project, has conducted similar radiation dose reconstruction projects in Kazakhstan (the site of Soviet nuclear tests), after the Chernobyl disaster, the Nevada nuclear test site detonations, the U.S. nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands and, most recently, the nuclear reactor crises in Fukushima, Japan.
He also has experience in New Mexico, notably with The University of New Mexico and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he served as a medical physicist for cancer treatments in clinical trials.
Simon conceded that, in part because of the amount of time that has passed since the Trinity test, “I don’t think that there is anyone who could go back and check everything that has been done since the beginning of the Manhattan Project. At some point, we have to rely on certain kinds of data.”
He said a major source of information on Trinity radioactive fallout comes from a 1987 meteorological study of the initial Trinity data by the National Weather Service’s Las Vegas, Nev., office.
“That report really forms the basis for my dose estimates,” Simon said. “Now what I need to know is where were the people and how were they living and what were they eating and drinking?”
Contact Dennis J. Carroll at email@example.com.
Correction: Jan. 26, 2014
A story on page A-1 in the Jan. 26, 2014 edition of The Santa Fe New Mexican about a study of the impact of the Trinity explosion incorrectly identified Jennifer Loukassis as communications manager for the National Cancer Institute. She is actually the co-investigator for Trinity on community outreach.
An online caption for the story incorrectly stated that the Trinity site is open twice a year, but in fact it is only open to visitors once a year — the first Saturday in April.
In addition, the story reported that NCI scientists will use the study to "attempt to reconstruct the internal doses of radiation received by residents living near the Southern New Mexico blast site." What the scientists said is that the study will attempt to reconstruct those doses of radiation received my residents using information on their diets and other lifestyle factors to then determine possible connections to radioactive fallout from the blast over the past seven years.