Study Estimates Several Hundred Cancer Cases as a Result of First Nuclear Test

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Some New Mexico residents have for decades sought recognition and compensation from the US government for injuries they alleged they suffered as a result of fallout exposure from the first test of an atomic bomb. A new study published by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) provides a potential resolution to the question of how events 75 years ago impacted New Mexico citizens.

On July 16, 1945, in a desert in south-central New Mexico, the United States Army conducted the first detonation of an atomic bomb. The test, code-named “Trinity,” was conducted in secret, and residents of New Mexico received no advanced warning. After civilians questioned the cause of the large explosion, a press release from the base claimed that “a remotely located ammunition magazine containing a considerable amount of high explosive and pyrotechnics exploded. There was no loss of life or injury to anyone, and the property damage outside of the explosive magazine itself was negligible.” Local New Mexico residents, however, have speculated for decades just what the real damage from the nuclear test was.

In a series of six papers to be published in the October issue of Health Physics, NCI researchers attempt to answer those questions. The study addressed five major questions related to the potential health impacts of the Trinity test. Among the questions considered were how many cancers are projected to have occurred as a result of exposures to the Trinity fallout.

The study found that there are “perhaps several hundred cancers,” (as many as 1,000 or as few as 290), primarily thyroid cancers, that have occurred or will occur in the future that would not have occurred in the absence of radiation exposure from the Trinity fallout. Most of the cancers caused by the fallout exposure will have occurred among residents living in five New Mexico counties in 1945. The study noted several limitations in the data, including uncertainty in dose estimation and the fact that New Mexico did not start tracking cancer cases until 30 years after the nuclear test, making it difficult to accurately determine the baseline and excess cancer cases. Due to uncertainties in the data, the study specifically notes that “with the data available, it is not possible to definitively identify the specific individuals whose cancers might be due to the radiation exposure.”

Some of the so-called “downwinders” of the Trinity test have been pushing for decades for recognition from the U.S. government of health effects they claim are related to exposure to fallout from the Trinity test. Legislation is pending to amend The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which provides compensation to (among others) individuals who lived downwind of the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, to include coverage for individuals impacted by the Trinity Test. The pending legislation would also increase the allowable attorneys’ fees from 2% to 10% of payments made under the Act for the filing of an initial claim. It remains to be seen whether this study will help efforts to get the legislation passed.

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