Other people keep pictures of their children in their wallets. I keep a small map from Richard Miller's book "Under the Cloud: The Decades of Nuclear Testing."
The map shows where radioactive fallout from 12 years of above-ground atomic testing in the Nevada desert spread during the 1950s and 1960s. Utah and Nevada are almost completely blacked out, and the dark ink spreads across the Midwest and as far north as New York and Canada.
Our government has never been forthcoming about what radioactive fallout did to the folks living under those clouds. Even in my hometown of Salt Lake City, people who have suffered cancer, leukemia and other related illnesses and who have lost family, friends and neighbors don't realize how that fallout may have affected them.
Radiation doesn't respect arbitrary lines on a map. The jet streams carried it across the country and it fell out in snow or rain, putting untold numbers of Americans at risk. Consider how smoke from the fires in California has darkened skies throughout the West, even turning skies around the Statue of Liberty a surreal orange. We could see the smoke, but we couldn't see the radiation that fell on fields and crops, rivers and streams and made its way into the food chain and into our bodies.
I grew up in Utah playing in puddles of rainwater, eating vegetables from the garden, drinking milk from a local dairy. It wasn't until the spring before my 30th birthday that I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, a common cancer in people exposed to fallout as children.
I keep a list of childhood neighbors who got sick. It now numbers 54 people. That includes my sister, who died of an autoimmune disease at age 46, another sister who was diagnosed with a rare stomach cancer and a younger sister being treated for autoimmune disorders. A friend of mine who died two years ago lamented, "We're veterans of the Cold War, only we never enlisted and no one will ever fold a flag over our coffins."
In 1990, Congress finally passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which provided $50,000 to some downwinders — that's what they call us — who lived in approved rural counties in three states during certain years and were diagnosed with one of 18 kinds of fallout-related cancer.
This was an important step. But, largely for political reasons, the act is extremely limited in scope compared to the actual number of civilians likely affected by nuclear testing. Many people — including myself, my family and childhood neighbors — are not eligible, despite the known impacts on our health. One 1997 study showed that up to 212,000 lifetime cases of thyroid cancer alone may be related to fallout from testing.
Radiation exposure can take years to manifest as cancer. People are still getting sick and their cancers are returning; they are suffering from health complications and saddled with huge medical bills. Yet, tragically, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act is set to expire in July 2022.
Those of us suffering the effects of nuclear fallout have waited too long for justice. For far too many, it is already too late.
That is why it is urgent that we not only extend the act beyond 2022, but also do right by more of those casualties — in Utah, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho and Montana. A bill introduced on Sept. 22 by Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, D-N.M., would do just that.
Members of Congress need to hurry. For some of us, this may be our last chance.
Salt Lake City writer Mary Dickson is a longtime advocate for downwinders. This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.