Home Radiation World’s first atomic bomb causes rare cancers in New Mexico

World’s first atomic bomb causes rare cancers in New Mexico



On a cool July dawn, 11-year-old Henry Herrera and his father were standing outside their home in Tularosa, New Mexico when they saw a bright light and heard the boom in what turned out to be the world’s first atomic bomb test.

  • A few hours later, their house was covered in ashes.

Why is this important: Three quarters of a century later, the Apache Hispanic and Mescaleros families and the descendants of those living near the Trinity Test are grappling with rare cancers that have devastated nearly four generations, while the federal government ignored them, rejected them and forgot them.

  • These families, mostly Latin American and Native American, now want recognition and compensation like white families near American nuclear test sites in other states. But time is running out.

The big picture: “The military didn’t tell us anything. Not even ‘I’m sorry.’ They only hurt a bunch of Mexicans who lived there, I guess, “Herrera, now 87, told Axios.

  • No president, from Harry Truman to Joe Biden, has apologized to residents close to the Trinity Test or openly advocated for New Mexico to be included in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

Details: On July 16, 1945, the US military detonated an atomic bomb developed as part of the Manhattan Project by scientists from the then-secret community of Los Alamos.

  • The bomb exploded at 5:29 a.m. in a desert valley called Jornada del Muerto, or Journey of the Dead.
  • Its thunderous roar during the rainy season knocked people off the breakfast tables in Tularosa and sent others on the Mescalero Apache Reservation into hiding.
  • At first, the explosion is radioactive the cloud moved away from Hispanic villages and native communities, but the swirling winds from New Mexico blew it back, blanketing those communities in debris.
Henry Herrera describes seeing the explosion of the Trinity Test from his parents’ house in Tularosa in 1945. Photo: Russell Contreras / Axios

What they say : “My mother had just hung her white clothes on the clothesline, and damn it! You should have seen the dust of God rolling all over town. She was so angry she had to wash them again.” , Herrera recalls.

  • What people didn’t know at the time was that the clothes became radioactive. The family continued to use them for years, he says.

Curious residents also went to Ground Zero for a picnic and picked up artifacts including the radioactive green glass known as trinitite.

  • Some even took pieces of contaminated fabric left behind to make christening gowns.
The New Mexico Trinity Test. Photo: Corbis via Getty Images

The plot: It wasn’t until after the United States dropped atomic bombs about a month later on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that residents of southern New Mexico learned details of the Trinity test.

  • Over the years, residents developed rare forms of cancer, organizing bake sales to raise money for treatment, not knowing what was going on.
  • The total health care costs and money lost for people living in the four affected counties in New Mexico are unknown.
  • Herrera had her jaw reconstructed after suffering from oral cancer. His family and other residents believe these cancers are linked to the atomic bomb test.

Do not forget : It wasn’t just the first bomb that was of concern. During the Cold War, the US government stepped up production of nuclear weapons by mining uranium throughout the Navajo nation.

  • There, the birth rate of the sheep dropped dramatically and the surviving lambs found it difficult to walk. Other lambs are born without eyes.
  • Navajo uranium miners also developed cancer and faced health care bills. Many have ventured into the wilderness to die alone, as dying at home is considered a bad omen.
  • There are more than 500 abandoned uranium mines today on the Navajo Nation, according to the EPA. Homes and water sources near these now closed mines have high radiation levels.
A Navajo woman feeds sheep at a Navajo Nation cabin in 2005. Photo: Gail Fisher / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

And after: Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium that advocates for families affected by the Trinity Test, tells Axios that residents of southern New Mexico are finally hoping to be included in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

  • RECA is a federal law initially passed by Congress in 1990 to grant financial remedies to downwinds at the Nevada test site and later to uranium workers in other states.
  • The act is due to end on July 15, 2022, but the Hispanic village of Tularosa and the Mescalero Apache reservation were never included in the law because Trinity Test downwinds were left out.
  • The Senate is expected this year to consider a bill sponsored by Senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) to expand the law and possibly include residents of southern New Mexico in addition to Native American uranium miners and some Idaho residents near other radioactive sites, Cordova adds.

The bottom line: “This begs the question: why were those close to the Trinity test excluded from the radiation exposure compensation law?” Cordoba said. “A lot of them were people of color.”