Any way the wind blows
America’s nuclear bomb-testing legacy catches up with Orangevale octogenarian
In 1943, 17-year-old Margaret Williamson left her home in Sunset, Utah, to visit relatives in Northern California. She met and fell in love with a Navy man, and they were soon married in San Francisco. She never looked back.
“I’d had enough of Utah to last me a lifetime,” explains Williamson.
The 82-year-old Orangevale resident had no way of knowing it at the time, but the move just might have saved her life. Her immediate relatives, along with thousands of other Americans, were about to become unwitting guinea pigs in the U.S. government’s quest for nuclear supremacy.
Even as World War II ended with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States was working frantically to develop new and more powerful nuclear weapons. Between 1951 and 1958, the Atomic Energy Commission detonated more than 100 of these second-generation nuclear devices in the atmosphere at the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The tests spewed deadly radioactive fallout across the country, but the Western states of Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Idaho and Montana, directly downwind from the atmospheric blasts, were the hardest hit. As leukemia, lymphoma and other cancer rates spiked in small towns throughout the lightly populated region, it became clear to ordinary citizens that the tests hadn’t been as safe as the federal government had advertised.
Williamson was terrified by the destructive force of the atom bombs dropped on Japan. She remembers the nuclear testing in Nevada and recalls the news reports in the 1970s, from towns such as St. George, Utah, where cancers caused by radioactive fallout wiped out entire families. But St. George is in the far southwestern corner of the state. Her family back home in Sunset, 35 miles north of Salt Lake City and more than 300 miles from St. George, was presumably out of harm’s way.
Then, one after the other, cancer killed all of them.
Their obituaries are brittle and yellowed, like autumn leaves flattened between the pages of a book. Williamson handles the clippings carefully, like they might turn to dust at the slightest touch, leaving only her memories as proof her kin ever existed.
She was born in 1922, the oldest of three sisters. Her father played the banjo and taught her how to play guitar as a young girl. Omer, the oldest of her four brothers, also played banjo, and the pair often performed duets for local churchgoers. They were poor, with no indoor toilet and the proverbial miles-long walk to school in the snow, but nevertheless, the family persevered through the Great Depression.
“We had it kind of hard, but we were close,” Williamson says.
All four brothers served in World War II, then returned to northern Utah to settle down and raise families. Her two younger sisters also stuck close to home. Only Williamson wandered. She kept in touch, but had her hands full in Northern California, raising two sons with her banjo-playing husband, Bob. When they weren’t working or taking care of the boys, the couple toured as a successful gospel and country-music act. Life in California had its ups and downs, but it certainly wasn’t dull.
When her father died in 1969 from prostate cancer, it didn’t seem out of the ordinary. He was 77 and had lived a full life. Then, in 1975, ovarian cancer took the life of her second-youngest sister, Shirley, at age 43. The following year, their 76-year-old mother passed away, also from ovarian cancer. A disturbing pattern was developing.
“I kept wondering, when am I going to get it?” Williamson reflects stoically. “Am I going to be next?”
But her turn never came—instead, cancer picked off the rest of her siblings, one by one. Prostate cancer took the life of her oldest brother, Omer, in 1979, at age 74. Her youngest sister Amy died of ovarian cancer in 1995. Her last remaining brother, Howard, died of prostate cancer in 2003, at age 79. Williamson, a feisty, cancer-free octogenarian, is quite literally the last family member standing.
“I’ve outlived my whole immediate family,” she says. Both of her sons died in separate incidents, and after 61 years of marriage, Bob passed away in 2004, from natural causes. “If it wasn’t for my grandchildren, there wouldn’t be anyone left.”
Margaret Williamson’s experience is not unique. Thousands of people across the western United States have shared the same grief. Activist Preston J. Truman, founder and director of Downwinders, has met hundreds of families stricken with cancers and other fallout-related diseases since starting the organization in 1978.
For Truman, it was a matter of survival. Born in 1951 in Enterprise, a rural Utah town near St. George, his first memory is sitting on his father’s knee as they watched an atomic bomb explode at the test site more than 100 miles away. By the time he was in high school, nine of his 30 classmates had died from illnesses that are now known to have been caused by radioactive fallout.
“I remember one family of 12 in St. George, all of them died,” Truman relates from his home in Malad, Idaho, where he continues to operate the Downwinders organization. Diagnosed with lymphoma at 17, he has battled a host of radiation-caused illnesses for most of his life, including recent treatment for thyroid cancer. He’s also battled the federal government; Downwinders was instrumental in the passage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in 1990, which currently provides up to $100,000 to individual fallout victims and family members.
Although the act has since been expanded to include 21 counties in Nevada, Arizona and Utah near the proximity of the test site, it has never gone far enough for Truman. That’s been particularly true since 1997, when the National Cancer Institute released a long-suppressed study that showed radioactive fallout from the bomb tests had spread much further, in far higher amounts, than the government had previously reported. In an open letter written after the study’s release, Truman made the argument that we’re all downwinders:
“It is time to realize in the wake of the release of the National Cancer Institute’s Fallout Report last year that fallout fell all over the United States and that it did so in about the same dose along an arc taking in much of the nation. Those of us working on behalf of fallout victims from this country’s nuclear testing program must realize it is now impossible to draw a line anywhere on a map of the United States and say, ‘You people on this side of the line should get compensated and those of you on the other side should not.’”
Although the study made national news at the time, it wasn’t widely disseminated and quickly faded from public thought. So when Emmett, Idaho, resident Tona Henderson learned in 2004 that the county she was born and raised in had received one of the highest doses of radioactive fallout in the country, it came as a complete shock.
“That is when I learned why my family has so many cancers and thyroid problems,” Henderson explains via telephone from Emmett, where she directs the Idaho Downwinders organization. Radioactive iodine (I-131), one of many toxic compounds contained in fallout, enters the human body through the thyroid. “To date, I can count 42 relatives, including my mother, who had breast cancer; my brother, who had testicular cancer; and my 15-year-old cousin, who died from Ewing’s sarcoma. Of the 24 people in my family who’ve had cancer, 12 have died.”
Radiation never sleeps; the data continues to pour in. In 2005, a study found that cancer rates in northern Utah, where Margaret Williamson had moved away from so many years ago, were much higher than could be expected to occur naturally. Williamson never saw the report, and it wasn’t until her grandson recently ran across the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act on the Internet that she finally put two and two together.
“There’s a lot of cancer in Utah,” she says ominously. While there’s no definitive proof that radiation fallout caused the deaths of her entire immediate family, Williamson is convinced that’s what happened. There’s no chance she’ll ever see any compensation, not in her lifetime. But thanks to the ongoing efforts of activists like Downwinders, compensation may someday be extended to everyone in the highest fallout zones, including the victims in Emmett and Sunset.
Don’t hold your breath, Truman says.
For now, the knowledge of what might have happened gives Williamson a semblance of closure. It explains why she lived and the rest of her family died. It also confirms her skeptical view of the federal government, which wittingly exposed the entire country to deadly radioactive fallout. That’s no surprise to her at all.
“We were always suspicious,” she says. “But what are you going to do? They decide to do something, and boom! That’s the way it goes.”