Bernice Gutierrez was eight days old when she experienced what many people believed was the end of the world.
At 5:29 a.m. on July 16, 1945, a plutonium based bomb detonated at the southern New Mexico Trinity test site, radiating more heat and light than the sun. The resulting fireball shot up more than seven miles high, and radioactive ash rained down for miles across the soil, water, animals and people.
“We never knew what was happening,” Gutierrez said. “When my doctor asked me if I had been exposed to radiation, I had no clue.”
The repercussions of the radiation from the bomb were covered up, and it wasn’t until late in Gutierrez’s life that she realized what her family had been exposed to.
Gutierrez’s family has been ravaged by complications from radiation exposure. Both Gutierrez and her brother have had thyroid cancer, her mother had three types of cancer, another brother had prostate cancer, her sister had three recurrences of cancer and her niece passed away at 20 from cancer.
“We don’t wonder if we are going to get cancer,” Gutierrez said. “We wonder when.”
There were an estimated 40,000 people within a 50 mile radius of the testing site, with some as close as 12 miles. With few sources of running water, radioactive fallout heavily contaminated the still drinking water. Additionally, most villages had no grocery stories, so all of the local meat, dairy, and harvest consumed were also contaminated.
In the months following the detonation of the plutonium bomb, there was a significant increase in infant mortality rates.
“I have three kids. Two of them have been affected. One didn’t make it.“ Gutierrez said, struggling to speak. “I worry about my grandkids … there is no limit.”
Tina Cordova, founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, said that downwinders spend everything they have to get treatment. With no nearby treatment facilities, costs include not just the treatments themselves, but also travel, lodging, food and time away from work.
“Some people have told me they wished they could die so they wouldn’t be a financial burden to their families any longer,” Cordova said.
In a hearing with the House Judiciary Committee on March 24, Cordova said, “Our ultimate goal is for the United States Congress to understand the sacrifice and suffering of their fellow Americans and extend health care coverage and compensation to the people of New Mexico and other downwinders through amendments to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA).”
RECA was established in 1990 by the federal government to extend compensation and medical care to downwinders in the proximity of the Nevada Testing Site, another nuclear test site that caused harmful radiation exposure, but coverage for affected New Mexicans wasn’t included.
“It is infuriating that the government has refused to acknowledge what happened and take care of their own people,” Gutierrez said. “They knew ahead of time that it was going to produce radioactive fallout, but they still detonated the bomb without concern for human health.”
Cordova said that if the health care coverage extended to the people of New Mexico, it could save lives and reduce their financial burden. Time is ticking down, though — RECA sunsets in 2022, so the amendment and extension would need to happen quickly.
“I feel like it finally has momentum now and it is finally going to happen,” Cordova said.
“All we have left to do is hope,” Gutierrez said.
Nikita Jaiswal is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NikitaJswl