Radiation: Fallout in Utah

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The little town of St. George, which likes to boast that "this is where the sun spends the winter," sits astride U.S. Highway 91 in southwestern Utah-and directly in the path of southwest winds blowing from the AEC's Nevada test site for underground atomic explosions, 140 miles away. Time and again since 1952, much of Utah, and especially St. George, has been showered with at least 100 and perhaps 1,000 times more radioactivity than the U.S. average. One of the most active elements in the fallout has been iodine-131, which gets into grass, then into cows, then into milk, and then into children who drink the milk. In children, even more than in adults, the radioactive iodine (like ordinary iodine) is selectively attracted to the thyroid gland.

Federal and state health officials wrangled for years over possible effects of fallout on children's health, then staged mass examinations last fall in St. George and in Safford, an Arizona town of similar size that has suffered no appreciable fallout. Among 2,000 children examined in St. George, 70 (or 3.5%) had nodules on their thyroid glands, as against only 25 out of 1,400 (or 1.75%) in Safford. Were the nodules cancerous? Was the fallout to blame?

Inflamed Glands. Getting firm answers to such questions called for some cloak-and-dagger work. To guard against starting a panic when 13 of the St. George youngsters with the most prominent nodules were put into the University of Utah Medical Center in Salt Lake City, there was no publicity at all.

Last week Surgeon General William H. Stewart of the U.S. Public Health Service announced the first results of the intensive study. No cancers have been found, he said. There are several cases of inflamed thyroids, and proportionately more of these are among the St. George children than among the Safford children. Added Dr. Stewart: inflammation of the thyroid seems to have increased recently in many widely separated parts of the U.S., and there is no proof that radiation, from fallout or other sources, has anything to do with it.

Under the Rug? As in almost all arguments involving fallout and its potential hazards, equally reputable scientists could be found on both sides. Some state officials accuse federal officials, especially the AEC, of trying to sweep fallout dust under the rug. Dr. Robert C. Pendleton, the University of Utah's top expert on radiology and health, dismissed even Dr. Stewart's announcement as "the same old bunkum." Actually, eight of the 13 children studied in the hospital have been declared cancer-free; tests on the others will take more time. And 55 of the original nodule cases will be restudied in May by impartial experts under PHS auspices. They will then be watched closely for years in a search for final answers to all the questions about Utah fallout.