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Some Arizona 'downwinders' exposed to nuclear test radiation still struggle for compensation

During and after World War II, the United States tested more than 1,000 nuclear weapons across the country and over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Hundreds of these were detonated in the American Southwest, mainly Nevada and New Mexico.

The radioactive fallout produced by these explosions traveled hundreds of miles, crossing state lines into Arizona and Utah. People who lived and worked in areas exposed to this radiation were more likely to develop cancer and other illnesses.

They’re known as "downwinders." But not all of them are created equal in the eyes of the federal government.

One of them was Cullin Pattillo’s father, Ed. He was a teenager living in Kingman when the above-ground testing occurred.

"My family, my father in particular, has been greatly impacted by the negligence of the federal government," Pattillo said. "... My father had cancer on three separate occasions."

Ed Pattillo died in April 2022 never having been acknowledged by the U.S. government as a downwinder. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990, known as RECA, doesn’t recognize lower Mohave County as an area affected by nuclear testing. There’s been no official answer as to why. The act provides restitution to people who lived and worked downwind of nuclear testing facilities.

Bipartisan legislation to expand the geographic area covered by the act has been introduced in Congress each session for more than a decade. Meanwhile, a number of Arizonans who were exposed to radiation suffered — and continue to suffer — a host of health problems. Some have died.

Laura Taylor is a lawyer who represents affected residents and helps process their claims. In order to successfully receive assistance, she said it must be proven that one either lives or once lived in a covered area and has one of the illnesses written in the law.

"Oftentimes folks will call me and say, 'Well, I have endometrial cancer,'" Taylor said. "Well, uterine and endometrial cancers are not covered, but ovarian is. So there's some interesting little distinctions in the program, things that are covered in things that are not. So that can cause some frustration for folks."

Things like thyroid cancer and other specific illnesses are generally easy to link to radiation exposure, but others aren’t and therefore aren’t included on the list of illnesses cited in the law, even if they may have resulted from exposure.

"Medical records are typically kept, kept for 10 years," she said. "If you hear about this program and think, 'Oh, yeah. Well, I had cancer back in the '80s,' it might be really difficult for that person to find medical documentation if they didn't keep it themselves. So that also is a barrier for folks that are trying to apply for compensation."

And compensation isn’t the end. Jean Bishop is a downwinder living in Mohave County, and because she lived for a short time in a covered area, she received RECA money. She said the $50,000 available to qualified downwinders helped her pay for health insurance. 

"It probably would not pay for enough to compensate for losing your home and your livelihood and paying the medical bills to the hospitals and the clinics and the after treatment and handicaps" Bishop said.

She worries that better support for downwinders isn’t a priority of the current crop of legislators.

"Somehow I just feel that they keep putting off expanding the coverage in the hopes that this is just gonna go away or the, or the victims of this compensation, requests will just die off," she said. "Sad as it sounds. It kind of feels that way sometimes."

RECA is due to sunset in 2024.

This story was adapted from the original  H ear Arizona podcast series InAccessible, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen.

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Nate Boyle was assistant producer for KJZZ's The Show from 2022 to 2024.