As many as 1,000 New Mexicans living in communities near the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was detonated 75 years ago, might have developed cancer from the radioactive fallout, says a long-awaited National Cancer Institute report released Tuesday.
The institute’s findings were based on a six-year study that involved computer modeling, researching historical data and interviewing 210 elderly “downwinders” who lived close enough to the blast to suffer internal radiation exposure by ingesting contaminated milk and food.
The number of cancer victims could be considerably less than 1,000 but is unlikely to be more, the study says.
There’s also no clear evidence the radiation caused genetic abnormalities that could be passed by birth to subsequent generations, the study says.
The study was met with disappointment and criticism by some whose families lived in the area when the bomb was detonated in the desert of south-central New Mexico on the morning of July 16, 1945.
The successful test of the world’s first nuclear weapon quickly led to the end of World War II, as atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki within weeks.
According to the study, the fallout plume generated by the blast at the Trinity Site moved northeast, creating the biggest radiation doses in Torrance and Guadalupe counties. Lincoln, San Miguel and Socorro counties also would’ve been affected.
The study’s authors concede there’s much uncertainty in the report because so many years have passed since the test, elderly residents’ memories of their diet are not wholly reliable and there was no state registry that tracked New Mexico cancer cases until the late 1960s.
Researchers had to draw on the institute’s cancer database, launched in the mid-1970s, to estimate the state’s cancer caseload before the atomic test.
“Hence, it is not possible to know, with certainty, if cancer rates changed in New Mexico in the first decades after the test compared to before the test,” the study states.
The report comes after decades of criticism from downwinder advocates, who have accused the federal government of refusing to acknowledge affected residents to avoid liability.
These critics have fought to get downwinders — whose numbers are dwindling with the passage of time — and their families government relief through the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. The program covers only residents of Utah, Nevada and parts of Arizona who were harmed by above-ground nuclear testing during the Cold War — not Trinity Site downwinders.
One such critic is Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium. She disagreed with some of the study’s conclusions, such as fallout having no intergenerational effects and communities south and east of the blast, including Tularosa, Alamogordo and Carrizozo, not being part of the downwind epicenter.
Cordova said one school of science acknowledges radiation can affect DNA, and another resists the idea. The institute apparently falls in the latter category, she said.
“Exposure to radiation damages cells, all cells,” she said. “It concentrates in reproductive organs. Why would it not damage your DNA?”
Cordova argued it’s well documented the cloud of fallout dispersed in the atmosphere and winds blew it in different directions.
The fallout wasn’t limited to its main body drifting northeast, she said. Data from various monitoring stations would show the places where the fallout landed, but it has never been made public, she added.
Dr. John Boice, one of the study’s authors, said there’s no proof intergenerational effects from radiation exposure have ever occurred, even in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombings.
The study concludes most cancer cases in New Mexico since 1945 are unrelated to Trinity fallout. And the lack of data makes it nearly impossible to peg any individual cancer to the blast, it says.
Among the “fraction” of cancer cases linked to radiation exposure, the most common was thyroid cancer, the study says. That’s because the thyroid gland is the primary organ that concentrates radioactive byproducts.
For this reason, contaminated fresh milk was of great interest because it leads to radioactive iodine concentrating in the thyroid, especially in children, due to their smaller glands, the study says.
Exposure was highest among whites and Hispanics because of where they lived, the study says. It was similar but sometimes lower for African Americans, and the lowest among Native Americans because most lived outside the main fallout area.
During a Tuesday teleconference, Joseph Shonka, who co-authored a 2010 study on the effects of nuclear testing, asked why the institute didn’t study vital statistics on people who died of cancer between 1939 and 1949 to see whether there was an upward trend.
“It’s not a morbidity study; it’s a cancer development study,” replied Steve Simon, an institute staff scientist and the study’s principal investigator.
One caller asked whether government data on the Trinity blast’s negative health impacts is still kept under wraps because of the Manhattan Project’s secrecy.
Simon said researchers found ample unclassified information and felt no need to dig into off-limits vaults.
Cordova said the study also failed to delve into whether increased radiation exposure led to more infant deaths, including a high rate in the summer of 1945. She questioned why the institute would do a study researchers say cannot draw definite conclusions and yet act as if it were conclusive. That could be misleading and damaging, she said.
“There will be people from our organization and from organizations across the country that are going to take a deep dive into this and that will have critiques of this study,” Cordova said.