The Downwinders

At the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union conducted hundreds of tests of nuclear weapons; many took place on US soil. In the wake of these tests, enormous clouds, pinkish-gray in color, rose up into the air, spreading out and reaching over nearby communities. At the time, not much information about these tests was available to the public, but the radioactive dust that fell from the clouds—gathering on people’s homes, their cars, their clothes lines, and their vegetable gardens—caused serious and harmful long-term medical issues. One woman, Carolyn Richards, who grew up near the test sites in Utah and Nevada, shared her memories of this time. Her father was a cattle and farm appraiser, and she began by recounting the experiences of her family with an explanation of how his work affected them:

Carolyn: He was out in the field, many a time, and so Dad had a direct second sense of this whole thing, being a farmer’s appraiser. He was the appraiser out in the field, of farmland and cattle, and Dad… that’s why they left St. George [a city in southern Utah]. They loved St. George, but that’s why after having Susan [a stillborn younger sister] pass away it wasn’t too much longer that they transferred right away from there. And I think a lot of it was due to that, just, probably knowing what happened in that situation. It wasn’t safe to be there, literally. I do believe having lost Susan was such a tragedy for both of them, and that’s why they transferred and left.

Nuclear test
A nuclear test in Nevada in the 1950s. People would sometimes gather to watch nuclear tests. At the time, they knew very little about the dangers weapons like this posed to their health. Wikimedia Commons.

Miscarriages of the kind Carolyn describes here, as well as higher rates of cancer, especially thyroid cancer, have long been associated with living near these test sites. Both were common in Carolyn’s family. These risks were not fully understood by people at the time, however, and the information that they did receive about health risks was often incomplete and questionable. Carolyn explained how her family was given, by local, state, and federal government officials, false and misleading information on how to protect themselves against these dangers.

Carolyn: It’s just so pathetic that [the government] would lie. Mom mentioned that, you know when we were just babies, Warren was older than I was, I was probably two, three. Mom said they were living in Washington [a small town near St. George, Utah] when they first moved down there, and it was about two years after I was born, and what they were told to do is to go in the house and shut the door, but look out the window at the pink cloud, okay… So they could see the pink cloud going overhead, no danger at all, but just don’t go out of your house… Actually Mom experienced that [the pink clouds overhead] several times, she could see those peculiar clouds waltzing over the sky above their heads, and they were told, by the government, go in your homes, shut the door, and don’t go out until, you know, six hours or so.

Carolyn: They were told just to stay home, and later on in the evening go out. But what happened is that, you know, people back then, when they did their washing they didn’t have dryers, so they had their clothes out on the clothes line, and they had gardens in their back yard, and they were just told to beat the dust off of their clothes, because the dust would lay on their clothes....and in their gardens. And they said, “Oh, wash your garden vegetables, and they’ll be fine.” That’s the kind of jargon they got. And so, yeah, a lot of people were worried, that they didn’t dare say too much, because that was their government, and you know, for them to speak out against the government wouldn’t have been appropriate.

There are a few reasons that Carolyn and her family may have felt that speaking out against the government would have been inappropriate. The Cold War was at its height; people believed, and were constantly being reminded, that another world war was just around the corner, one that would be more devastating because it would involve nuclear weapons. Dissent could also be interpreted as sympathy for communism, and it could have serious personal and professional consequences. Many people felt that it was more important than ever to support the US government, which makes the uneven balance of responsibility between citizen and government, in Carolyn’s opinion, all the more striking.

Carolyn: Another thing that discourages me, too, is that not till the 1960s were we really aware of the danger of those fallout materials. Mom and Dad were told that there was nothing to worry about, it wasn’t going to harm anybody, that stuff. And then people started getting sick! And passing away! And thyroid cancer was a big one, it was huge… and then our family lost that sweet little baby. Dad still thinks that it’s the milk Mom drank, and then Mom later on got colon cancer, and none of that has ever shown up in her family. There’s no sign of colon cancer anywhere in the family. And Mom died with colon cancer, and Dad and Warren were plagued were skin cancer, and I’ve had a bit of skin cancer myself. It’s always a worry because, the people realized that the government were lying to them! Literally lying to them. And it just was sad, it was a sad situation.

It is impossible to know exactly how many people were affected by nuclear testing in the United States, but Carolyn’s experiences were not uncommon. Cancer rates, especially for thyroid cancer and leukemia, have been higher among those who were exposed, and one extensive study of “downwinders” (those who lived downwind from nuclear test sites) in 2006 suggested that many of those who were young at that time were still developing health problems as a direct result of the testing.[1] As more information became available to the public about the dangers of being exposed to nuclear radiation, it contributed to the fear that many felt about the possibility of nuclear weapons being used. It also contributed to a growing distrust of the government.

Adam Rodger

University of Kansas

Radiation Map

The areas shown on this map were some of the most seriously affected by radiation. Carolyn spent a considerable amount of her childhood living in Washington and Sevier Counties in southern Utah.

US Radiation Map

While the areas surrounding test sites in the southwestern states are some of the most heavily affected, air currents carried the radioactive particles all over the country, and even beyond the borders of the US. Courtesy of National Cancer Institute


  1. This study also includes a diagram illustrating how radiation was commonly passed to people from cattle by way of milk, just like Carolyn described. Steven L. Simon, Andre Bouville, and Charles E. Land, “Fallout from Nuclear Weapons Tests and Cancer Risks,” AmericanScientist 94 (2006): 48-57.