The Blaine County Journal News-Opinion - We've Got The County Covered

"What happened near Las Vegas didn't stay near Las Vegas"


March 25, 2020

Pol Haldeman's mother bought a Geiger counter in 1956 with the idea of looking for uranium deposits. Many 1950's ads for Geiger counters, like this one, appealed to people hoping to find uranium to mine as the U.S. ramped up research involving atomic blasts.

Pol Haldeman has lived on a ranch south of Cleveland in the Bear Paws since his family moved west from the Chicago area in 1954. He shared a story he thought readers might find interesting about his mother buying a Geiger counter. The federal government started using the Nevada Test Site (about 60 miles northwest of Las Vegas) in 1951 for research about atomic energy and weapons. Pol's mother figured with the up-tick in research there would be an increased demand for uranium. She ordered a Geiger counter with the idea to locate uranium deposits.

The machine arrived in 1956 and by early fall the family had the Geiger counter operating. Mrs. Haldeman first tested the soil around the house where she got a "buzz signal" indicating the presence of radioactivity. She went further afield of the house and got more positive tests. Pol said, "She went to Chinook and up into the north country, over to Warwick and Three Buttes. Every place she went tested positive for radioactivity."

Pol removed a patch of the lawn about six inches deep and there was no signal from the area below the surface. Pol added, "Soon the radioactive readings stopped completely." He later figured out the counter was not indicating a uranium deposit but was measuring radioactive fallout from the test site 850 miles away. Scientists determined the fallout was Iodine-131, a radioactive chemical sent aloft during nuclear blasts and carried for hundreds of miles by the wind.

Nuclear testing was carried out world-wide

starting in the U.S.

The U.S. conducted 100 atmospheric nuclear tests from 1945 to 1963 at the Nevada Test Site. Other countries also conducted nuclear tests, North Korea as recently as 2017. It was some time before the residual health effects of radioactive fallout were understood. A 1991 study by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) predicted that roughly 2.4 million people could eventually die from cancer as a result of atmospheric testing.

Iodine-131, though short-lived, is likely what Alba Haldeman first measured with her Geiger counter in the Bear Paws. The resulting exposure to I-131 was found to have health effects that could take several decades to detect. Readers of a certain age may recall the "milk scare" of the late 1950's and early 60's when it was determined that I-131 on pasture grasses was ingested by cows and could contaminate milk. Children who drank raw (fresh) milk during the 1950's and 60's received the highest doses and are at greatest risk for future thyroid cancer. Because of world-wide atmospheric testing virtually every human has some exposure to radioactive materials.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) was passed in 1990 and expanded in 2000

As the connections between certain cancers and exposure to radiation were identified, victims brought lawsuits against the United States alleging a "failure to warn of known radiation hazards." Those suits were dismissed by courts but Congress responded with a program for restitution to "individuals who developed serious illnesses after presumed exposure to radiation released during the atmospheric nuclear tests or after employment in the uranium industry." Passed in 1990 and expanded in 2000, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) pays individuals who can establish "the diagnosis of a listed compensable disease after working or residing in a designated location for a specific period of time."

There are three classes of individuals who qualify for RECA restitution. First are individuals who worked as uranium miners, millers or transporters. They may be eligible for a lump sum payment of $100,000. "Onsite participants" at atmospheric nuclear weapons tests may receive a one-time payment of $75,000. Many of these folks were at test sites as civilian employees or in a military unit exposed to the effects of a nuclear blast. The third group eligible for possible RECA compensation are "downwinders," people who lived for a specific period in one of about fifteen counties in Nevada, Arizona or Utah, and have a diagnosed, listed compensable disease (cancers).

Dr. Scott Browning, Pol Haldeman's brother-in-law, was a cancer doctor in San Diego for a time. He wrote, "Late malignancies associated with open (atmospheric) tests include thyroid cancer and hematological malignancies such as leukemia and myeloma, lung, breast and bladder cancers."

In 1990 Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act providing a means for restitution of victims of certain listed diseases who were exposed to radiation downwind of the Nevada Test Site. The average measure of accumulation of radioactive Iodine-131 of the nineteen eligible counties shown on the map was 3.8 units. Blaine County, Montana's measure of radioactive Iodine was 9.1. No counties in Montana are eligible for restitution under RECA.

A detailed study by the National Cancer Institute in 1997 plotted and ranked concentrations of radioactive Iodine-131 within 3,071 counties in the U.S. While the study of levels of radioactive iodine was made after the 15 eligible counties for downwinders were already legally designated, concentrations of many other counties, especially from southeast Idaho to north central Montana (including Blaine County, Montana), showed higher concentrations than most of the counties covered by the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. To date RECA has paid out $1.5 billion to 22,716 victims, mostly downwinders. Under the law claims not filed by July 10, 2000 are barred. The trust that funds the program will lapse in 2022. Downwinders in Montana and Idaho were never legally eligible for compensation.

What's next?

Dr. Remington noted, "These (cancers) have a long latency period and may not show up for decades after the exposure." The doctor also wondered if there was tracking of thyroid cancer in Montana in the decades after the nuclear testing period. He added, "'s (thyroid cancer diagnosis) probably the most sensitive indicator of radiation induced malignancy." Many victims exposed to radioactive fallout have yet to manifest symptoms. There is some evidence that certain changes to cells from radiation can be passed on to offspring of exposed victims.

Mrs. Haldeman found the results of uranium, but no mother lode to mine. The consequences from that early fallout she measured still threaten our generation and future ones. If only what had happened near Las Vegas would have stayed near Las Vegas.


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