The federal government, after already spending $8 million on the project, has yanked funding for a study of possible connections between thyroid health effects and the radioactive fallout that hit southern Utah and nearby areas of Nevada decades ago.
The study has rechecked about 1,300 of 4,000 former students who lived in southwestern Utah and eastern Nevada, plus a control group of Arizona residents.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based in Atlanta, ended the program.
"CDC does not have the financial resources available to continue the project," agency spokesman John Florence told the Deseret Morning News. "It's a funding issue."
Notification of the study's halt came in a March 21 letter from Michael A. McGeehin, director of the CDC Division of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects, to Dr. Joseph L. Lyon, a University of Utah researcher who has been heading the investigation.
Lyon said he is loath to use the word cover-up, but it seems the federal government does not want to know about health effects of fallout on American citizens. Still, "That's the only interpretation I can place on it," he said.
Asked how often the CDC pulls funding in the middle of a major study, Lyon said, "I've never known it to happen before. I haven't done a survey there, but it's the first time I've heard" about such a thing happening.
Lyon's earlier studies, beginning in 1977, demonstrated that fallout from open-air nuclear bomb blasts at the Nevada Test Site caused cancer downwind. After his report was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in February 1979 and another review showed excess leukemia deaths, Congress passed a fallout compensation measure.
In 1993, a new study by Lyon and colleagues found radioactivity from the detonations increased the incidence of thyroid tumors 3.4 times over the expected rate among schoolchildren who were exposed to the highest doses.
That study, published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, examined the children when they were adults. They had been checked by federal researchers between 1965 and 1970. The federal researchers had not found any connection. However, the 1993 study showed 56 children had thyroid nodules. Of those, 11 were benign tumors and eight were malignancies.
The latest study was an attempt to re-examine those residents. They were in grades six through 12 in the Washington County School District in 1965. Some scientists suspect health effects may develop slowly for thyroid disease and that there may be lifelong risk.
McGeehin wrote that the CDC "has determined that no further funding is available for this study." He noted that so far, seven years of funding has been provided at a total cost of $8,049,988.
"This funding has included a five-year cooperative agreement begun in 1998, a 12-month cost extension of the cooperative agreement and a one-year grant awarded in September 2004," he wrote.
A "special emphasis panel," which is a board of scientific experts from outside the CDC, reviewed Lyon's protocol and recommended that the Utah Tyroid Disease Study not be funded beyond the 2004 grant award, McGeehin wrote.
"Furthermore, CDC at present does not have the resources to extend funding for this study beyond the current budget period. We recommend that you take measures to close out this study by the end of the current budget period, which will occur on Aug. 31, 2005."
Lyon said the study involved examining about 4,000 people who were originally identified in 1965, "and we've examined 1,300 of them."
The study's subjects were children when fallout swept through the St. George-eastern Nevada area. They were in sixth through 12th grades in 1965. In addition, a control group was established in Safford, Ariz.
It turned out that the control group also was exposed to fallout, but it wasn't as heavy in Safford.
"We've found just about 90 percent of them," Lyon said, speaking of the study's 4,000 subjects. "Most of them are willing to participate."
Researchers have been examining them in Salt Lake City, St. George, Phoenix, Tucson and Safford, Ariz.
The study is incomplete and analysis has not been carried out yet, so he is hesitant to talk about results. The analysis can't be concluded until the 4,000 people are examined.
But that may not happen. The federal government is saying, "tough luck," he said.
Lyon had this explanation for the study's continuation beyond the five years originally envisioned: The federal government "put all kinds of bureaucratic hurdles in our path that were not part of the original agreement."
For example, researchers were told they needed to have an institutional review board at the CDC, besides the review at the University of Utah. Establishing that took two years. Then the CDC wanted the National Academy of Sciences to look at the plans a process that took another two years, including comment time, he said.
A review panel of three U.S. Department of Energy employees "basically focused on the way we calculated the dose for these people," he said.
The researchers responded with a 50-page answer, showing their efforts were state-of-the-art, according to Lyon.
The National Academy of Sciences said changes should be made but that the study should be carried out, he said. "They were supportive."
An outside review by the university "basically said the same things, needs to be done and the methods look good," Lyon said. "So I don't know what's going on at the CDC. It's a total puzzle to us.
"But essentially they're saying, 'We don't want your study.' "
Only about half of the $8 million spent so far was used in the research, because overhead took a huge amount, he said.
Among this group, "We've already reported that there's an excess of benign tumors of the thyroid gland," Lyon said.
"I've been working on this now since 1977," he said. "I'm about ready to retire, and I'm sort of saying, 'I'd like to finish up this thyroid study and get more definitive information.' "Comment on this story
The scientists are protesting against the end of the funding, "and we are upset about it," he said. "We've got pretty strong indications that there are other disease problems that ought to be looked at."
Jay Truman, founder and director of the group Downwinders and one of the former students, said the government was wrong to halt funding. This was supposed to be a definitive study, he said."All of us downwind are still, as we were at the time the heaviest fallout fell, expendable!" Truman added.