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Time bombs keep going off for cancer-plagued families in Idaho who lived downwind of nuclear testing in the 1950s.

As a girl, Sheri Garman drank milk from her family's dairy farm that was contaminated by radiation from nuclear testing in Nevada. Now 52 and a mother, she is dying of cancer.
 (Photos by Dan Pelle/Spokesman-Review / The Spokesman-Review)
As a girl, Sheri Garman drank milk from her family's dairy farm that was contaminated by radiation from nuclear testing in Nevada. Now 52 and a mother, she is dying of cancer. (Photos by Dan Pelle/Spokesman-Review / The Spokesman-Review)
Karen Dorn Steele The Spokesman-Review

EMMETT, Idaho – After atomic bomb tests rained dangerous radioactive fallout on Idaho in the 1950s, Don Garman’s “Valley of Plenty” became a valley of death.

Garman, 87, said he and his Gem County neighbors used to rush to a bluff to glimpse the eerie glow in the sky when the nuclear bombs were detonated hundreds of miles south in Nevada.

The dairy farmer said nobody warned them that the white dust that drifted onto their fields after the blasts and clung to their hands and windows was a time bomb.

“It looked like frost. Nobody ever told us there was any danger,” said Garman, who has liver cancer.

Some children in the Intermountain West died soon after the fallout of acute leukemia, the first of the radiation-sensitive cancers to strike.

A half-century later, the people of south-central Idaho are still developing illnesses that may have been triggered by radioactive isotopes in the 100 open-air nuclear bomb tests on U.S. soil from 1951 to 1962.

And they are angry. Angry at not being included in a government program that has made $50,000 “compassion payments” to some fallout victims with cancer in Nevada, Arizona and Utah. So far, the program has paid out $775 million.

For the first time, they will be able to tell their stories to a National Academy of Sciences panel Nov. 6 in Boise. The panel will decide next March whether to recommend a costly expansion of the fallout compensation program.

Bess McDoniel, 82, a lifelong Emmett resident, will speak to the scientists about the telltale slash on her neck from an operation for thyroid cancer in 1961. She remembers the powdery white fallout that covered her hands and house in the 1950s.

Lennis Mabee will talk about her son, who had a cancerous testicle removed when he was 7 months old. “I am angry not because of the cancer,” she said, “but because we were lied to and not informed.”

Tona Henderson will list dozens of relatives with cancer, some who died as teenagers.

A 1997 National Cancer Institute study shows that Idaho often caught the worst of the atmospheric fallout the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission deliberately sent north to avoid exposing Los Angeles and other big cities.

The institute estimates the fallout may be responsible for more than 200,000 thyroid cancers linked to radioactive iodine-131, an element absorbed by cows and transferred to the human thyroid gland in milk.

But many health questions remain unanswered. The cancer institute’s study focused solely on iodine-131, which represents only 2 percent of the 126 radioactive elements in fallout, said Richard L. Miller, of Houston, author of the U.S. Atlas of Nuclear Fallout.

Miller said the government should look more closely at the “strong association” between fallout and cancer rates in 3,100 U.S. counties.

“There are other dangerous radionuclides out there. The question hanging in the air is: What are the health impacts of the rest of them? We polluted the entire United States with fallout,” Miller said.

‘Only time will tell’

Gem County near Boise was one of the hardest hit in the nation, according to Miller’s research. During the 1950s it absorbed 35 radioactive isotopes, including iodine-131, which loses half its radioactive wallop in eight days, and long-lived strontium 90, which falls on plants and attacks human bone marrow if ingested. Other nearby counties, including Custer, Lemhi, Blaine and Valley, were also badly exposed.

Many Idahoans raised in the shadow of the bomb are only now learning of the fallout risks. It’s a hot topic at the Rumor Mill cafe, a popular bakery in Emmett, population 5,500 and the center of Gem County’s Valley of Plenty.

“Emmett is a town with scars on people’s throats and visits to the tumor clinic. Only time will tell what’s in store for the rest of us,” said Henderson, 44, the cafe’s owner.

Henderson has hung a large map, titled “The Bombing of America,” on the Coke case. It shows a wide swath of nuclear fallout over Idaho. The cafe walls are covered with portraits of Emmett’s military veterans, from the Civil War to Iraq, but the talk on a recent fall day was of the civilian victims of the Cold War.

Henderson was raised on a dairy farm where everyone drank fresh, raw milk. That dietary habit increased their cancer risk, government studies show, because the radiation didn’t have time to decay to less-harmful levels.

Henderson has lost a dozen members of her extended family to cancer, including a second cousin who died of throat cancer in 1967 and a first cousin who died of Ewing’s sarcoma at 15. Twenty-seven other relatives have thyroid problems and a variety of non-thyroid cancers. Henderson’s doctor recently ordered diagnostic tests for her because she’s having trouble swallowing.

“I’m afraid for my family,” said the mother of five.

Emmett residents are angry at Sen. Larry Craig and Gov. Dirk Kempthorne for failing to include them in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA, administered by the Department of Justice. The program was expanded in 2000 to cover 21 counties in Nevada, Arizona and southern Utah.

More than 9/11

Shelley Wunder, a registered nurse who works at the local hospital and whose family owned the Ford Dairy in Emmett, said cancer in middle-aged people is common in the county. “The Mountain States Tumor Institute in Boise says they have a sea of 1G plates – Gem County – in their parking lot,” Wunder said.

Emmett’s ailing residents are profoundly uneasy about a Bush administration proposal to resume nuclear testing in Nevada by 2007 for a new generation of nuclear weapons.

“They’ve killed more people with fallout than we lost at the twin towers in New York on 9/11,” said Pearl Ford, who has lost her mother, father, brother and husband to cancer within the past five years. “We don’t want them to do it again.”

Congress plans to vote on funding for the revived nuclear testing program in mid-November, after the presidential election, said Jeremy Maxand of the Snake River Alliance, a 1,300-member Boise group opposed to more tests.

Idaho politicians are more concerned about funding nuclear programs at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory than paying for the illnesses caused by fallout, Maxand said. “There’s a concern that talking about the harm the nuclear test program caused in the past will hurt future weapons programs,” he said.

In Utah, the Salt Lake Tribune in a Sept. 29 editorial blasted the Bush administration’s proposal to ready the Nevada Test Site for new tests. But no Idaho newspaper has editorialized against the resumption of nuclear weapons testing, Maxand said.

Craig doesn’t have a position on the resumption of nuclear testing, although he’s provided taxpayer dollars for the White House to look at it, said Craig spokesman Mike Tracy in Boise.

‘What could be healthier?’

Garman’s youngest daughter, Sheri, was less than 6 months old on June 5, 1952, when a 14-kiloton plutonium bomb called Tumbler-Snapper was detonated at 3:55 a.m.

The fallout that descended on Gem County and three other Idaho counties later that day was driven to earth by a severe rainstorm and was among the highest ever calculated for any above-ground test, according to Miller’s fallout atlas.

It contaminated Garman’s dairy cows – putting his infant daughter in jeopardy.

Last month, on the night of the Sept. 11 commemorations across the country, several hundred people met and wept in Emmett over the ongoing toll of death and disease. They decried the Cold War assault by their own government, which in a confidential 1951 Atomic Energy Commission memo described them as a rural, “low-use” segment of the population. The memo was written to justify continuing the test program although the commission knew the fallout was dangerous and some in Congress were pressing to move the tests offshore to the Pacific.

The residents who gathered asked why the commission lied about the health dangers. They wondered why they were excluded from the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, when they got as much or more fallout as Arizona, Nevada and Utah. But the compensation program wasn’t expanded because of the high cost – in the billions of dollars – of including more people.

Using the National Cancer Institute’s dose calculator, Sheri Garman recently learned she was exposed to an estimated 75 rads of radiation – the equivalent of 10,000 chest X-rays – from drinking gallons of raw milk each month as a child.

The fallout greatly increased her risk of getting thyroid cancer. Her chances were 54 in 1,000, compared with a 2-in-1,000 chance if she hadn’t been exposed to fallout, according to the cancer institute.

Garman graduated as Emmett’s high school valedictorian, became a CPA, married, had a daughter and moved to Vancouver, Wash. When she was 30, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Breast cancer followed in 2000. The cancer has spread to her bones and liver. She is terminally ill at 52.

“It just breaks our hearts,” said her mother, Millie. “We had our own cows, our own pasture. We thought, what could be healthier?”

Cancer in the family

Garman says she’s determined to live to see her 25-year-old daughter, Katie, get her master’s degree as a physician’s assistant next year – and to ensure that Idaho downwinders are paid a modest stipend for their suffering.

“In this day and age, $50,000 isn’t going to cover the medical bills. My chemotherapy was $10,000 a month. But the money is part of it; it means a government apology,” Garman said.

Shocked by the growing death toll among her middle-aged friends, Garman learned this year that the National Academy of Sciences was planning to recommend to Congress whether the compensation program should be expanded. But the panel had scheduled no hearings in Idaho.

In July, she wrote her childhood friend Kathy Skippen, now a Republican state representative for Gem County and the northern part of Canyon County.

“Her letter was heartbreaking. It didn’t make any sense to me that they weren’t covered” by RECA, Skippen said.

Newspapers in Emmett and Boise picked up the issue. More than 250 people showed up at the Sept. 11 meeting in Emmett, including Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.

Garman’s speech moved the audience to tears, Crapo said. “I’ve never had to follow a more powerful speaker,” he added.

Crapo, Craig and Idaho Rep. Butch Otter asked the National Academy of Sciences to add an Idaho hearing to its schedule. After initial reluctance, the NAS agreed.

“The hearing is very important. We need to be able to tell the scientists where we were, what we ate,” Garman said.

Boise attorney Tom Linville, 53, will be there to talk about the cancers that have devastated his family.

He was born in 1951 in Boise, but when he was an infant his family move to nearby Gooding County – listed in Miller’s atlas among the 20 counties in the United States most impacted by fallout. It ranks 10th for strontium 90, which takes 38 years to lose half its radioactivity. It is still present in the soil.

Linville’s mother got breast cancer at 30, and cancer has struck three of the four Linville siblings. The only one who didn’t get it is the youngest brother, Dick, who was lactose-intolerant as a child and drank a milk substitute, Linville said. The rest of the kids guzzled 10 gallons a week from a local dairy, he recalled.

Linville’s only sister, 45-year-old Rebecca Obletz, was a member of the Stanford University swim team when she was struck with thyroid cancer in 1978, her freshman year. A second tumor was removed the next year. Born in Boise and now a resident of Portland, she was diagnosed with melanoma in February.

“The Stanford doctors asked me if I’d ever been exposed to radiation. I said no. We had no clue then that Idaho had been hit with fallout,” Obletz said.

Brother Bob Linville, 52, of Seward, Alaska, is gravely ill with aplastic anemia, a rare disease that soared in Russia after the 1986 Chernobyl reactor accident. He is at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle this month to prepare for a bone marrow transplant.

Linville’s own cancer battle started in 2001.

“I thought I had diabetes; I had night sweats and got tired walking up the stairs. I was 50,” he said. His doctor found a grapefruit-sized tumor in his belly, and diagnosed non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.

“It was a huge shock,” he said.

After 25 years building a corporate law practice, Linville quit work. He lost 50 pounds in chemotherapy. More tumors grew in his liver, spleen, bone marrow and lower right lung.

A cancer medicine shrank the tumors for a while, but he relapsed in August 2002 with a new growth under his jaw. Doctors peeled his face back and removed the salivary gland tumor. At Fred Hutchinson, radiation was beamed at his face to prevent a recurrence.

Last year, another tumor appeared in his groin. Doctors advised a bone marrow transplant, but Linville was extremely reluctant.

“It’s very final. It can work, or it can kill you,” he said.

Instead, he sought out an experimental program at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. An $80,000 vaccine customized by a drug company to fight his latest tumor has worked so far.

Linville was the third sibling to get sick.

“We said, wait a minute – did we live next to Love Canal? What is this plague on our family?” he asked.

Connecting the dots

Many of the doctors who treated the Linvilles had asked if they’d ever been exposed to radiation. But until this year, when the fallout stories from Gem County hit the local newspapers, they hadn’t made that connection.

“We were at a family reunion at our Idaho cabin in August. I said, ‘This is it.’ We never connected the dots until the last two months,” Linville said.

Linville went to the meeting in Emmett. He witnessed a huge show of hands when people were asked whether they had cancer themselves or knew of relatives with the disease. “Ninety-seven percent of the people at the meeting raised their hands. That was shocking,” he said.

Linville wants Craig, Idaho’s senior senator who sits on powerful appropriations committees, to include all Idahoans exposed to fallout in the national compensation plan.

“This area was hit hard, and I still don’t see how our politicians swept it under the rug. There’s a generation of innocent people who were affected,” Linville said.

There’s no conclusive science linking fallout to many non-thyroid cancers downwind, but the NAS hearing in Boise will allow Idaho citizens to be heard, said Mike Tracy, Craig’s spokesman. Although independent researchers like Miller note a strong association between the high-fallout counties and cancer rates, the government still hasn’t studied the link between fallout and cancer across the country.

“The delegation wanted Idahoans to have the opportunity to give their input because they’ve asked for it,” Tracy said.

The NAS panel will release its report on the fallout compensation program in March. If Congress decides to expand it, it should be done equitably, Miller said.

“They should base this on science. Any county that got more fallout than Nye County, Nevada, where the bombs were detonated – including the Idaho counties – should be considered. We have hot spots all over the country,” he said.

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