Nearly 70 years have elapsed since the first atomic bomb was dropped—not the ones visited upon Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but the test bombs that were inflicted on unsuspecting New Mexico residents near the Trinity testing site, including 19 American Indian pueblos, two Apache tribes and some chapters of the Navajo Nation.
Now, at long last, the National Cancer Institute is examining, as requested by former Senator Jeff Bingaman after a 10-year study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the health effects of the nuclear industry on New Mexicans. The CDC study, titled the Los Alamos Historical Document Retrieval and Assessment, concluded that internal radiation doses for New Mexicans from "intakes of radioactivity via consumption of water, milk, and homegrown vegetables ... could have posed significant health risks for individuals exposed after the blast."
Children may have received the most exposure, said Tina Cordova, Santa Clara Pueblo, head of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders’ Consortium, given that milk is a prime source of radiation contamination. People in 1945—American Indian and non-Indians alike—grew or hunted all of their food, she said. Everything they consumed was produced within the radiation field created by Trinity.
The study, according to co-investigator Jennifer Loukissas, will involve a review of the historical, ethnographic, sociological and scientific literature and the collection of information from people in New Mexico in order to come up with a "model that we can use to most accurately estimate radiation dose and then project the number the cancer cases that may be related to the Trinity test."
This is not an epidemiological study, principal investigator Steven L. Simon explained. Nor will it involve trying to count the number of cancer cases related to Trinity or identify which individuals have cancers caused by the test. Such a study, Loukissas said, is simply not possible because no one kept track of cancers in New Mexico before the state's cancer registry was established in 1966.
"We're going to estimate … the number [of cancer cases] that occurred from this single test by first understanding how much exposure the people got,” said Simon.
Following the review of the literature, "Stage two is we plan to come to New Mexico and carry out some in-depth interviews, guided interviews [with a] nutritional epidemiologist [whose] expertise is in talking with people about dietary intake, food gathering practices and lifestyle habits," Loukissas said. “This information will be considered in combination with information from other studies and what is known about how much radiation exposure is likely to cause how much cancer. From that work, scientists will estimate how many cancer cases were likely to have been caused by the Trinity test.”
She added that she is hoping to be put in touch with elders who were caring for and feeding children at the time of the blast so as to learn what the children were eating as well as the adults.
“These could be sisters, mothers, although probably most of the mothers are no longer living, but it could be aunts, extended family,” Loukissas said.
The National Cancer Institute is eager to fully understand the diversity among the different populations of New Mexicans, Loukissas said, adding that it will be very important to speak with the pueblo groups and the tribes. The interviews are expected to take place in mid-2014.
Cancer is not the only legacy of the Trinity test, according to Cordova and Naranjo. Many women suffered miscarriages right after the test, and a few years later many young people found themselves unable to conceive, which could suggest that the radioactivity had caused sterility. But perhaps the most pressing concern is the genetic damage that can be passed on and that could harm untold generations.
Another factor that has gotten little attention is the human suffering caused by the test and the government's apparent disregard for the tribal peoples of New Mexico, Sanchez said. The people in the community have been holding annual vigils as a way of acknowledging the harm that has been done them, both physically and emotionally.
Sanchez is looking for answers.
"We are thankful and very hopeful this NCI report will bring positive changes to the dosage reconstruction model as now actual cultural land-based human witnessed details will add more credibility to updates,” Sanchez said.
Cordova is looking for compensation under the Radiation Compensation Exposure Act so that people will finally have the resources to deal with the illnesses in their families. It will come years too late to help those who suffered in silence not knowing what had happened to them, but it would be something.
"It's an apology owed,” said Naranjo.