Then-Gov. Mike Leavitt, quoted in the Deseret Morning News' 2001 series "Toxic Utah," offered Utahns this glimpse into his family's experience with above-ground atomic testing in the 1950s and '60s:
He recalled the image of his grandmother hanging out laundry to dry at her home in Bunkerville, Nev., as pink clouds of radioactive dust swirled overhead. He pointed to family members who have had cancers he believes were caused by above-ground nuclear testing. "I remember at the time the fear we had of leukemia," he said. "Everyone was aware of it."
Given Leavitt's personal connection to downwinders and his public disdain then of the Atomic Energy Commission's "dishonesty and manipulation of information" regarding the safety of the weapons tests, it is unfathomable that Leavitt, as Secretary of Health and Human Services, would be comfortable, according to a spokesman, with halting the funding for ongoing research into the possible connections between fallout and thyroid abnormalities among Utahns downwind from the Nevada Test Site.
Is this the same Leavitt who, in the fight to keep spent nuclear fuel from being relocated to the Goshute Indian reservation in Tooele County, invoked Utah's "epidemic of cancer and other radiation-related illnesses as a result of radioactive fallout from U.S. Atomic Energy Commission nuclear weapons testing in the '50s and '60s"?
"We are painfully aware of the risks we face from high-level nuclear waste," Leavitt wrote in 2000 to the Minnesota Public Utility Commission in opposing Private Fuel Storage's proposal for a spent nuclear fuel storage facility in Utah.
How, then, can Leavitt be "comfortable" with halting a research project on such a critical issue, particularly when earlier work by lead researcher Dr. Joseph L. Lyon of the University of Utah found that study subjects had 3.4 times the number of thyroid abnormalities than would be expected?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an agency under Leavitt's Department of Health and Human Services' umbrella, says Lyon and his colleagues simply need to hurry and finish the research by Aug. 31.
As if it were that simple.
The plan of the study was for a team of four medical professionals to examine 4,000 people, many of whom had to be tracked down. Thus far, only 1,300 have been studied. A team member who handles the study's statistics told the Deseret Morning News that "it's simply not possible" to finish the study by Aug. 31.
According to Lyon, the research team kept the CDC apprised of its budgetary projections, now only to find out that funding for the research will end before the work can be completed. Initially, the CDC approved a five-year project, which was extended a year in 2003. But Lyon says CDC bureaucracy and requirements consumed much of the time set aside for the study. More resources are needed.
Leavitt should have intense interest in the completion of this research, which has already cost some $8 million. Utahns particularly downwinders and their families have an obvious self-interest in the completion of this work. It is more important, however, that the medical community have definitive conclusions about the effect of fallout on thyroid disease.
Leavitt, as a son of southern Utah with personal connections to downwinders, needs to reassign resources within his department to ensure the completion of this vitally important work and to help win the trust of Utahns, many of whom are rightfully suspicious of the federal government's nuclear weapons testing programs and their aftermath.
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