On July 16, 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project scientists detonated an atomic bomb for the first time ever at the Trinity test site in New Mexico. The explosion took place more than 200 miles away from the Los Alamos Laboratory where they’d built the weapon. But the testing site, located in the Tularosa Basin, was not an isolated area. Nearly half a million people, many of them Hispanos and Native Americans, lived within a 150-mile radius of the detonation—some only 12 miles away. These people and others downwind of the blast became the first victims of nuclear fallout.
Many of them heard (and felt) the Trinity explosion around 5:30 that morning, and saw the bright blast it created in the sky. Some had direct contact with the fallout material. One witness at a summer camp in Ruidoso, New Mexico, later told Vice that she and other girls played in falling white debris like it was snow, catching it on their tongues and rubbing it on their faces. Others came into contact with the fallout through their environment as the radioactive debris infected the surrounding water, crops, livestock and land.
The U.S. government, keen on avoiding panic and maintaining the project’s high level of wartime secrecy, told Tularosa Basin residents that the blast they’d seen was simply an accidental explosion of ammunition and pyrotechnics. Officials chose not to evacuate the area, nor to warn residents of potential health effects. Yet even after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few weeks later—killing an estimated 110,000 to 210,000 people and effectively ending the war—government officials still failed to inform Tularosa Basin residents about the potential effects of the blast. When asked directly about the detonation’s health risk, they denied any potential hazard.
US Officials Ignored Infant Deaths
One of the most immediate health impacts of the Trinity test was a spike in infant deaths. In 1947, an alarmed health care provider in Roswell named Kathryn S. Behnke wrote to Stafford Warren, who was responsible for radiation safety during the Manhattan Project, to ask him if these deaths had any connection to the Trinity test.
“As I recall, in August 1945, the month after the first bomb was tested in New Mexico, there were about 35 infant deaths here,” Behnke wrote in her letter to Warren, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “I understand the rate at Alamogordo, nearer the site of the test, was even higher than Roswell.”
At the time, scientists understood that exposure to nuclear radiation could lead to tumors, cancers and other negative health effects. In fact, five days after the Trinity test, Warren had told Manhattan Project leader General Leslie Groves that the nuclear fallout from the test represented “a very serious hazard” over a 2,700-square-mile area downwind of the Trinity site.
Despite Warren’s knowledge that the fallout represented a huge health risk, his assistant wrote back to Behnke that he hadn’t heard about an increase in infant mortality, but in any case “wanted to assure you that the safety and health of the people at large is not in any way endangered.”
Trinity Test Created an Ongoing Health Crisis
Over the next several decades, people who lived through the blast began to develop cancer, heart disease and other health problems. People born after the blast developed these problems, too. This occurred not only because the radioactive fallout from Trinity stuck around in the environment; other factors included local uranium mining (uranium is a key component of the A-bomb’s construction) and migrating fallout from nuclear tests in Nevada starting in the 1950s.
People who lived near Trinity and other nuclear test sites began to identify themselves as “downwinders,” and made connections between their communities’ health problems and the government’s nuclear tests. In 1990, the United States passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to provide money to some downwinders of the Nevada test site near Las Vegas. However, the act doesn’t provide any compensation or apology to the downwinders of the Trinity test site.
In 2005, Tina Cordova co-founded the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium to draw attention to the region’s radiation exposure and demand government action. The organization promotes amendments to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act that would include New Mexico downwinders and other people with nuclear radiation exposure.
The 1990 act “is an admission on the part of our government of the harm that they did to other downwinders,” says Cordova, who was born in Tularosa in 1959 and is a cancer survivor. “The problem is, the program doesn’t go far enough because it left out the first people ever exposed to radiation from a bomb, which are the people of New Mexico.”
In a 2010 report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that exposure rates from the Trinity test “were measured at levels 10,000 times higher than currently allowed.” The first nuclear detonation caused an ongoing health crisis for which New Mexico’s downwinders are still demanding an apology and compensation.