Sparkles of light ricochet off of Vero’s pale blue eyes. I am struck at first by his slightly unusual mannerisms, though it is apparent immediately that he is a very kind person. “Speak louder…I have a brain tumor by my right ear and can’t hear all that well, and you speak too quickly”. I am sitting on the worn leather couch in the Dixon library, and I am just meeting Vero for the first time. I have so many questions that I don’t even know where to begin.
Vero began working at Los Alamos in the early 1990s, first as a clerk, and eventually climbing the ranks to program manager, working with radioactive plutonium. “You become addicted to Los Alamos”, he asserts. “The status, the wealth… it is a wonderful place to live.” Except for the health risks. Vero wasn’t aware of the exposure risks in the building where he worked. He began as a program manager, and later as a technician experimenting with different kinds of plutonium. It was a decade later when he realized he had trouble remembering certain things. He also began to fall a lot.
After five years passed, several doctors agreed on a dismal diagnosis: Vero had a brain tumor that required surgery. The tumor was making him forget and affecting his ability to hear. These doctors also claimed he had Alzheimer’s and dementia, not associated with his tumor. Vero knew this was not the case. Unsatisfied with this avenue for treatment, he dramatically shifted his diet, began exercising, and began brewing natural remedies from the herbal cancer formulas of Edgar Cayce and Harry Hoxsey. A decade later, he sits next to me on this leather couch.
Unable to receive compensation from Los Alamos National Labs for the eight different cancers he developed from his work there, Vero has been working with clients who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory and who live in downwind areas, to help them receive compensation for aggressive and unforgiving illnesses they have contracted as a result of exposure to radionuclides. This is an exceedingly difficult endeavor, for the obstacles are many. These include death, deteriorating health, access to care, limited health care, comprised medical records, institutionalized barriers, the arbitrary use of markers in lieu of those established by medical science, and the ability to even access any records and information from the lab. Additionally, in order to gain compensation, you must be able to prove a lot of information including the dates you worked at the facility, the area of the facility where you worked, your job title and duties, who you worked with, etc. The Program only recognizes facilities that were recorded to be contaminated during certain time periods when considering compensation cases. While proving this information may seem relatively straightforward, accessing files and information from a laboratory deeply immersed in secrecy and controversy, and one which propagates the denial of any dangers associated with radiation exposure, is daunting. Vero only just recently succeeded in helping a family seek compensation for an illness contracted in 1951.
As far back as the Manhattan Project, the medical records kept at the lab were limited, and records of exposure were often altered and forged so as to get the maximum “worth” out of a worker: this I have gathered from the oral histories of people that worked in the medical division at the lab. It was not uncommon for doctors to put on their blinders when workers came down with cancers, denying any relation to radiation exposure. Hundreds of workers were shunned and retaliated against for trying to access their medical records, and their requests for their own medical records were often denied. Hundreds have died without compensation. Vero himself was not confident of the integrity of doctors at the lab, and relied on a laboratory in California to test him for alpha, beta, and gamma radiation exposure. This testing identified in his body the exact radioactive elements he had been working with during his time at the lab.
There are twenty-two cancers that qualify for compensation under the auspices of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, the organization that determines and defines eligibility. Bladder cancer, thyroid cancer, brain cancer, basal cell carcinoma are all very common among those who have fallen ill from exposure to radiation. The reality is that many of those who worked at nuclear facilities like the one in Los Alamos suffered several different kinds of cancers over their lifetimes. The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program weighs each instance of cancer individually. It does not consider the compounding effects from these cancers. You may have ten different kinds of cancers, and if only one of them matches the list of twenty-two cancers it is all you are compensated for.
Currently, there are 15,000 living people who have worked at Los Alamos National Lab that have fallen sick. This number excludes those who live in contaminated downwind communities, the thousands of individuals who have already passed away from debilitating cancers and, those who have yet to come forward with their illnesses, notably those living in Pueblo and Native American communities. Nationally, over 300,000 living people have fallen seriously ill as a result of their work at nuclear sites. This is not incidence- this is an epidemic.
The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act presents an apology and monetary compensation to individuals who have contracted certain cancers and serious illnesses following exposure to radiation released during atmospheric tests, or following exposure to radiation while employed in the uranium industry during the Cold War arsenal buildup. This Act has served in providing compensation for certain uranium workers, such as the Navajo who were often employed to mine uranium for the MAPR, but has not helped the thousands still living with these illnesses and trying to prove their case here in New Mexico. Nor has it served the Tularosa Basin downwinders, the nearly 20,000 people who lived within 50 miles of the Trinity test site explosion, who were neither evacuated nor warned of the dangers of radioactivity. These people, unaware of the dangers of exposure and contamination, continued to drink water from contaminated cisterns that supported their villages, and continued to eat contaminated produce and livestock.
Vero stands up and runs two fingers along the top of the library book shelf and shows them to me. The radioactive particles still present in downwind Dixon hugs the ridges of his fingerprint. He wipes it quickly on his pants, and we both stare at the remaining dust trail clutching to the fabric. In my mind I trace the pathway of a radioactive contaminant, airborne and traveling to the Sangre De Cristo Mountains, where they are carried down the mountain streams and find their way into the drinking water thousands of people here consume, and the soils that bear their food.
Vero is adamant about several things. You should be able to get tested if you are working at the laboratory. You should also be able to get preventative care, which is not offered by the lab. After all, many of the treatments for cancers these days are more harmful than the cancers themselves, having horrible side effects. He plans to take his case to court, to prove that working at a lab and handling radioactive materials can make you sick. This might seem like a no brainer, but how many more people will succumb to degenerative cancers, and how many more times will the government turn its back, destroying or denying records until this is meaningfully addressed? I have never in my life wanted a person to succeed as much as I want Vero to succeed. In respect to exposure, contamination, and illness, I will leave you with one more thought: we kill more people manufacturing weapons every year than were killed in 9/11, or Pearl Harbor. Do you hear the silence?
I want to leave you on an uplifting note. In my time here, I’ve had the good fortune to take a little time away from my work to explore the Southwest.
Past evergreen groves and along the serpentine road I drove, Denver bound. Ryan, my best friend, would meet me here and we’d set out to Rocky Mountain National Park. Under the bold white frosted mounts I felt so little. Upon arrival we saw elk, and colorful wildflowers dotting a surreal, lush green landscape. We bounded along to the trail toward Loch Lake, occasionally sitting down and looking out over the undulating landscape. We gawked at the remnants of ice shelves around the lake, clumsily sliding and sinking into the white cold with our sneakers. This was the best day I had out West.
The following day we set out to hike the Hessie trail in Nederlands with our friend’s eager husky and encountered a moose! We also made another fabulous encounter. In overalls with blonde curly ringlets framing her face, we met a woman who sang with the soul of the world. She would belt into song like Billie Holiday instead of choosing to speak, and often laughed in what seemed like the purest ecstasy. After our excursion in Nederlands, and before heading back to Taos, we stopped at the Denver Chalk Art Festival, bewildered by these painstaking labors of love that would disappear at first rain.