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Radioactive Fallout to St. George, UT

Listen to an excellent radio documentary program about the fallout from the Nevada Test Site and its impacts on the surrounding communities


On May 19, 1953, a 32-kiloton atomic bomb was detonated at the Nevada Test Site. The bomb was code named Harry, but local residents gave it the nick name Dirty Harry after massive amounts of fallout blanketed the surrounding area. Exploding on the Yucca Flat, Harry had a blast three times the size of the Hiroshima bomb. On May 14, 37 members of congress had arrived to see the blast that had been scheduled that day. Delays kept pushing it back and as the delegation became impatient, only 23 members had stayed long enough to actually see the blast. In a trench 4,000 yards from ground zero, 900 servicemen witnessed the detonation.

Winds carried the fallout 135 miles to the town of St. George, UT. The AEC had set up monitors in the town which detected readings of 6,000 milliroentgens. Many of the people who were outside and downwind reported feeling ill on the day of the blast. People complained of headaches, fever, thirst, dizziness, loss of appetite, general malaise, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, hair loss, discoloration of fingernails, hemorrhaging, and burns to exposed skin. All of these are symptoms of radiation sickness and indicate exposure to relativity high doses of radiation.

Fallout hits St. George

Frank Butrico was an AEC monitor stationed at St, George. He reported receiving high readings of radiationradiation. He was ordered to recheck his equipment and get another reading, which he did and reported the same readings. He was ordered to check his equipment again and get a third set of readings. By the time he reported getting the same readings for a third time a full fifteen minutes had passed. He was ordered to advise the residents to go in doors. Unfortunately there was no plan on how to do this. Butrico was unaware if St. George even had a radio station, let alone where it was located. His only idea was to go to the mayor's office. Luckily the mayor was there. He called the nearest radio station, KSUB, which was 50 miles north of St. George. The announcement to go in doors and remain there was made at 10:15, a full hour after the radiation had been detected.

The radio broadcast had been only slightly successful. Butrico and a policeman drove down the street advising people who had not heard the broadcast to go inside. When they passed a schoolyard they saw all the children playing outside.

Butrico was worried about all the time he had spent outside while the fallout was coming down. He took a reading of his hair and found it to have high levels of radioactivity. He went to his motel and took a long shower and discarded his clothing for a new set. Although he had been outside during most of the time the fallout was coming down these actions prevented him for any radiation sickness. Butrico never instructed the people of St. George to take similar precautions. Instead, his orders were to inform anyone asking about the situation that "We got some readings...We know what happened...We think it's not of much concern." While other monitors in the area were called back to the base, Butrico was ordered to stay and answer questions. He regarded his job to now be a "PR thing."

Outside of St. George roadblocks had been set up to check cars for radiation. Monitoring crews from the AEC stopped about one hundred cars that were heading north out of St. George. Many of these cars were washed down in hopes of decontaminating them. When the workers realized how much fallout was coming down, they quit trying to wash cars off until radioactive particles stopped falling. At this time the AEC told local media that the "radiation had not reached a hazardous level." Residents of St. George reported a strange metallic taste in the air. This same phenomenon would be recorded at Three Mile Island 26 years later. The report also mentions the town of La Verkin, 20 miles northeast of St. George. Goats in the town turned blue after the clouds of fallout wafted through their grazing area. The AEC said this was because of them rubbing up against the zinc coating of the fence and did not mention fallout.

Just outside of St. George in Hamblin Valley, Elma Mackelprang was caring for some ewes and new born lambs. It was a cold morning so she left her three children inside her pickup truck. All of a sudden she saw a fine ash, like the kind from a forest fire, settle around her. That afternoon Mackelprang, who was 29 years old, suffered fever, nausea, and diarrhea. Her exposed skin burned and peeled several times. Three weeks later she began to lose her hair until she was complete bald. She lost her finer and toe nails which, along with her hair, eventually grew back. Her children did not show any signs of being sick. The AEC told a local official that Mackelprang's symptoms had not been caused by radiation, but we because of a recent hysterectomy.

Some of the children in the area had been showing signs of radiation sickness. State health officials investigated the matter, but being dependent on the AEC for confirmation of sickness, dismissed the idea that the children had been effected by radiation. A letter from them was published in a local paper saying the children had been the victims of measles.

The day after the Dirty Harry detonation, local residents began complaining to their elected officials. The Salt Lake Tribune reported "Reverberations from the atomic tests in Nevada Tuesday echoed in Washington Wednesday as Southern Utah residents protested to Representative Douglas R. Stringfellow (R-Utah) about radiation contamination in the area." Congressman Stringfellow responded to the outrage of his constituents by requesting that the AEC suspend the tests in Nevada. The AEC refused and Stringfellow lost his next run for reelection.

Two days after the Dirty Harry explosion, AEC commissioners were discussing the heavy fallout. The AEC tried to obtain the names of the milk producers in the area, but were unable. Internal memos show that the AEC was not too disappointed because if they would have obtained the information it might have "created a disturbance." Frank Butrico did obtain a sample of milk from St. George in order to test for iodine 131. He was ordered to do it quietly so as not to "alarm an already worried community". He didn't obtain milk from a dairy, even though that is how most of the residents of St. George did. Instead he went to a store and purchased a bottle of pasteurized milk. No conclusive tests were made of the milk because it was damaged in the lab.

The fallout from the fallout

After the Dirty Harry test the heads of the AEC began to worry about the public relations aspects of the tests. They began discussing alternative test sites. There was a fear that a single incident could prevent any and all testing in the United States. The Pentagon on the other hand wanted the AEC to stand firm and continue testing in Nevada. In the declassified minutes of a May 1953 meeting, a Department of Defense official voiced his concern that the "AEC is making a serious mistake in over-emphasizing the effects of fall-out resulting from recent tests." One general at the same meeting was critical of precautionary measures the AEC had taken after the Dirty Harry test. He felt that washing down cars and asking residents to stay in doors for a few hours "were extreme and caused undue public concern."

On the morning of May 27th, the chairman of the AEC, Gordon Dean, met with President Eisenhower. At the meeting he advised the President that words such as "thermonuclear," "fusion" and "hydrogen' be left out of official press releases. With the hydrogen detonations in the Marshall Islands that had taken place in the past year and since more sophisticated nuclear weapons tests were scheduled, Eisenhower thought it would be good idea for the AEC to keep the public "confused as to `fission' and `fusion.'"

It was estimated that since 1952, much of Utah, especially St George had been showered with between 100 and 1,000 times more radioactivity that the U.S. average. The most active element in the fallout was iodine-131. Radioactive iodine is selectively attracted to the thyroid gland. Children are at greater risk than adults. For years state and federal health officials fought over what the possible effects of fallout was on children's health. Eventually in 1966 there was a mass examination in St. George and the surrounding areas and another one in Safford, Arizona. The town of Safford was of similar size that had not been exposed to appreciable fallout. Of the 2,000 children examined in St. George, 70 (or 3.5%) had nodules on their thyroid glands. In Safford only 25 out of 1,400 (1.75%) had nodules.

After the results were released there was debate on the connection between the children's health and fallout. Surgeon General William H. Stewart reported the nodules as noncancerous and said there was no proof that radiation, whether from fallout or other sources, had anything to do with it. Some state officials accused the federal offices, especially the AEC, of downplaying the effect of the fallout. Dr. Robert C. Pendleton, the University of Utah's top expert on radiology and health, was critical of the results of the tests and dismissed even Dr. Stewart's announcement as "the same old bunkum."

Later studies showed that children living in St George during the testing who were exposed to fallout died of leukemia at higher rates than normal. Dr. Joseph L. Lyon of the University of Utah's Medical College looked at the incidence of leukemia deaths among children aged 14 or less who were living in Utah counties along the fallout pathway during the 1950s. He found it was 2.4 times as high as the rate among people of the same age who lived in the same area before and since. Lyon's findings are not conclusive, since he had insufficient information to prove cause and effect in any individual death. The actual numbers were also small. There were 32 leukemia deaths in the counties receiving high fallout and versus the 13 that might normally be expected. Despite finding no direct link between the fallout and the higher rates of leukemia, Dr, Lyon found no other explanation.

In 1978, partly in repose to these studies, President Carter appointed an interagency investigative task force to determine if there was a cause-and-effect link between low-level radiation and cancer. In March of 1979, the team of scientists, lawyers and bureaucrats came to the conclusion that while researches still cannot positively indentify how much radiation is safe, it was clear that the amounts the U.S once regarded as safe were not. The task force reported that "the incidence of leukemia produced by low levels of radiation may be higher than scientists previously thought." The report went on to say that "because the clinical features of cancer do not reveal its cause, it is impossible to distinguish the few (people) with radiogenic cancer from the larger group whose cancer was caused by other factors." One of the main problems is determining how large a dose of radiation a victim received. While the task force was dissatisfied with the recommended safe level of 170 millirems a year, they reported not having enough information to lower permissible emission.


Fradkin, Philip L. Fallout: an American Nuclear Tragedy. Tucson: University of Arizona, 1989,9171,842543,00.html

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