The Herald Journal
Exposed: Professors shed light on radioactive living
Matthew Flitton

Photo courtesy of Gary Madsen

Professors Susan Dawson and Gary Madsen have conducted numerous studies on
the psychological and social effects on radiation exposure.

Imagine working in a uranium mill where the dust is so thick visibility is reduced to a few yards at times. The only protection your lungs receive is the bandanna you have tied on your face.

Consider living in a world where your husband's work clothes are caked with radioactive dust. There's so much that the yellow sludge needs to be scooped out of the washing machine after the laundry is finished. Outside, the same yellow dust blows from uncovered tailings piles that your children play on close to your home. It has to be cleaned from the clothesline before drying the laundry. The cinderblock walls around you are made from uranium tailings.

Now, imagine that no one ever told you it was harmful. You accept the ubiquitous dust, the sludge from your laundry goes into your garden as fertilizer, you sleep on a mattress made from old canvas sacks once used to filter yellowcake.

You have visualized the working and living conditions of many uranium millers and miners during the 1950s and '60s, as compiled by Utah State University professors Susan Dawson and Gary Madsen.

[This cinderblock home (center) was made from uranium tailings.]

These professors have dedicated their careers to understanding the extent of such exposure and helping victims receive compensation for illnesses caused by radiation exposure. They have interviewed people from numerous ethnic groups from Northern Utah to New Mexico.

This husband-wife team has spoken before federal bodies on seven different occasions, including testifying before Clinton's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, on the subject of illnesses resulting from working with uranium during the Cold War.

U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch said the USU professors have been a valuable resource in considering the effects of radiation on uranium millers and miners.

"Doctors Dawson and Madsen's work was most helpful in providing Congress the latest data necessary to convince others in Congress that we were justified in expanding the program, as we did with the RECA 2000 amendments, to include the millers and other above-ground individuals," he said.

When the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) was passed in 1990, it provided compensation to uranium miners for radiation exposure. Millers were included in the compensation when the act was amended in 2000. Diseases covered by the act include nonmalignant respiratory illnesses, leukemia multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkins lymphomas and primary cancer of the thyroid, female breast, esophagus stomach, pharynx, small intestine, pancreas, bile ducts, gall bladder or liver.

Dawson's concern with the subject began long before she moved to Utah. The Iowa native has long found the subject of nuclear exposure a fascinating one.

"At one point I wanted to go to the Marshall Islands for my dissertation to work with the people who had been exposed there," Dawson said.

Dawson said when she was offered a position at USU it was a "natural fit."

"Originally, I thought, 'I'll be working with the downwinders,'" Dawson said.

Her plans changed after learning about the plight of uranium miners down in the Four Corners area through a fellow faculty member. Dawson went down and began interviewing people to learn about their working conditions.

Dawson said she became interested in helping the families when she saw the absolute poverty they were in. Many people had difficulty getting medical expenses paid. Regular insurance wouldn't pay for treatments because individuals had applied for workers' compensation. Workers' compensation wasn't paying because there were disputes about whether the miners' illnesses resulted from exposure.

"I interviewed Navajo families who sold their jewelry, their Navajo jewelry, pawned things, just to pay the funeral expenses for their deceased loved ones," Dawson said.

Dawson extended her study to mill workers after being approached by a group of millers who thanked her after a testimony. They said she was the only person who had mentioned the exposure millers received.

Madsen, a Utah native, joined Dawson as both a professor of social work and as a kindred spirit.

Another concern of the pair is how exposure extended outside of the work area. Many of the Navajos had homes located next to the mills and mines they worked in and took free materials home, where they exposed whole families to radiation.

Madsen said the Navajo reservation had some 1,300 uranium mines. Utah had six uranium mills, four of which were located on reservations. Opportunities for contamination abounded.

"When we were there (on the reservation) last year, we talked to a person who worked at UMTRA (Uranium Mine Tailing Reclamation Act). He said they've reclaimed about 75 percent of them," Madsen said.

One of those mills used canvas bags to filter some of the dust for protection. When they were saturated with uranium, the mill offered to allow workers to take the bags home.

"What a number of people did is they took these bags home and sewed them together and used them as mattress pads," Dawson said.

Some miners would bring chunks of uranium ore home with them, where the family would set the "pretty rocks" in the window sill.

"One woman told me how she baked it in her oven to see what would happen, what it would look like if she baked it," Dawson said.

A Utah woman told Dawson how her washing machine would have toxic sludge on the bottom after washing her husband's clothes. When Dawson asked the woman what she did with the uranium, she was told, "I put it in my garden."

But even if nothing had been brought back from the mill, many homes built by government on the reservation were radioactive because they were made from cinderblocks containing uranium tailings. After the danger was known, new homes were built, but the radioactive abodes remained, and many of them were habitated.

Other radioactive structures were built. Grand Junction, Colo., had sidewalks and schools made out of radioactive rock.

"The Climax Uranium Company asked contractors, who said it would be really good to use as fill," said Bill Chenoweth, a Grand Junction resident and activist.

A trucker used to store piles of uranium in his backyard. Because there were no protective tarps over the loads, clouds of yellow dust rose from the trucks as they took the cargo through Moab on the way to mills.

One person interviewed reported seeing government officials in "moon suits" monitoring her yard.

"In addition, two respondents explained that they saw officials placing monitoring devices on their homes and surrounding land, but the respondents were never informed about the meaning and result of the monitoring," Dawson and Madsen wrote in one study.

Why was such a dangerous product allowed to infest the lives of so many people?

"I think government workers weren't warned (of the dangers of uranium). Company officials weren't warned of some of them, but some people clearly did know, and that's been very well documented," Madsen said.

Dawson said many she interviewed felt they were serving their country by working in the uranium industry and were betrayed.

"We heard that word, in particular, betrayed, over and over and I think that's what led to their (the victims') activism," she said.

While Madsen and Dawson originally thought they would be through with the project in a few years, they became more involved as they found more exposure problems. Next month, the professors are off to Paris to present a paper on uranium education projects on the reservation to the 17th World Conference on Health Promotion and Health Education. Their paper summarizes projects on the Navajo nation to educate people on what radiation is, how people were exposed, and what recourse is available to them.

"It's a fascinating area that just grabs you and it just seems to keep unfolding," Madsen said.