Researchers from the National Cancer Institute want to know how many past and present cancer cases in New Mexico may be related to the U.S. government's test of the world's first atomic bomb over a remote stretch of desert nearly 70 years ago.
They are visiting the state this week and conducting in-depth interviews with several residents to learn more about the lifestyles and diets of people who were living in New Mexico around the time of the atomic detonation at the Trinity Site.
The team is particularly interested in filling in gaps when it comes to Native American and Hispanic populations and any links to fallout radiation exposure and food and water contamination.
Dr. Steven Simon, the project's lead investigator, said Monday that the information about diet and lifestyle will help his team more accurately project radiation doses from the fallout. "Using those dose estimates, we will then project an estimate of the excess cancers related to Trinity above the number that would have occurred in the absence of the test," Simon said.
The study also takes into account already published data on the radioactive fallout from the blast.
The research team has done similar work in Nevada, the Marshall Islands and Kazakhstan.
The atomic detonation occurred on July 16, 1945. A flash of light and a thunderous shock wave followed as a mushroom cloud soared about 38,000 feet into the air. The steel tower that held the bomb disintegrated. Left in its place at the Trinity Site was a crater that stretched a half mile and was several feet deep.
The blast could be seen from miles away, but the government released no information about the atomic test until the bomb was used during World War II.
It took days for the radioactive debris to settle over New Mexico's Tularosa Basin.
A previous study done by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that exposure rates near the Trinity Site were thousands of times higher that currently allowed. However, that research didn't take into account internal exposure.
Henry Herrera, an 80-year-old Tularosa native, told the Alamogordo Daily News that he and his father were working on the family truck when the bomb was detonated about 40 miles from their home.
Over the years, Herrera said the life expectancy of Tularosa residents plummeted. Herrera, a cancer survivor himself, believes the health problems so many residents face are a result of that first atomic test.
"I can't think of anything else. It just came out of the clear blue sky," he said.
The individual interviews with residents mark the first phase of the National Cancer Institute's project. Researchers are also planning a series of focus groups in New Mexico next year.
Once complete, their findings regarding everything from lifestyles and diet to cancer risks will be published in English and Spanish so it will be accessible to the community and other researchers.