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The world's 1st atomic bomb causes rare cancers in New Mexico and no apologies for 76 years

·4 min read

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

  • Hours later, their home was covered in ash.

Why it matters: Three-quarters of a century later, Hispanic and Mescalero Apache families and descendants of those living near the Trinity Test are dealing with rare cancers that have devastated nearly four generations, while the federal government ignored, dismissed and forgot them.

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  • Those families, mainly Latino and Native American, now want acknowledgment and compensation like white families near U.S. nuclear testing sites in other states. But time is running out.

The big picture: "The military didn't tell us a damn thing. Not even, 'I'm sorry.' They didn't hurt nothing but a bunch of Mexicans who lived there, I guess," Herrera, now 87, tells Axios.

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

Details: On July 16, 1945, the U.S. Army detonated an atomic bomb developed through the Manhattan Project by scientists at 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 from breakfast tables in Tularosa and sent others on the Mescalero Apache reservation into hiding.

  • At first, the blast's radioactive cloud blew away from Hispanic villages and Indigenous communities, but New Mexico's swirling winds brought it back, covering those communities with debris.

Henry Herrera describes seeing the Trinity Test explosion from his parents' Tularosa home in 1945. Photo: Russell Contreras/Axios

What they're saying: "My mother had just hung her white clothes on the clothesline, and god dang! You should have seen the god dang dust that rolled all over town. She was so mad that she had to wash them all over again," Herrera remembers.

  • What people didn't know at the time is that the clothes became radioactive. The family kept using them for years, he says.

Curious residents also went to ground zero to picnic and took artifacts, including the radioactive green glass known as trinitite.

  • Some even took contaminated pieces of cloth left behind to make christening dresses.

The Trinity Test in New Mexico. Photo: Corbis via Getty Images

The intrigue: Only after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs about a month later on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would southern New Mexico residents learn any details about the Trinity Test.

  • Residents over the years developed rare forms of cancer, holding bake sales to raise money for treatment, not knowing what was happening.

  • Total health care costs and money lost for people living in the affected four New Mexico counties are unknown.

  • Herrera had his jaw reconstructed after suffering from mouth cancer. His family and other residents believe such cancers are related to the atomic bomb test.

Don't forget: It wasn't just the first bomb that was a concern. During the Cold War, the U.S. government stepped up its production of nuclear weapons by mining uranium all over the Navajo Nation.

  • There, the birth rate of the sheep dramatically dropped and surviving lambs struggled to walk. Other lambs were born without eyes.

  • Navajo uranium miners also developed cancer and grappled with health care bills. Many ventured into the desert to die alone, since it's considered a bad omen to die at home.

  • There are over 500 abandoned uranium mines today on the Navajo Nation, according to the EPA. Homes and water sources near those now-closed mines have elevated levels of radiation.

A Navajo woman feeds sheep in a shack on the Navajo Nation in 2005. Photo: Gail Fisher/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

What's next: 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 hopeful about finally being included in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

  • RECA is a federal law originally passed by Congress in 1990 to award financial reparations to Nevada Test Site downwinders and later uranium workers in other states.

  • The act is scheduled to sunset on July 15, 2022, but the Hispanic village of Tularosa and the Mescalero Apache Reservation were never included in the law because Trinity Test downwinders were left out.

  • The Senate this year is expected to consider a bill sponsored by Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) to extend the law and possibly include southern New Mexico residents in addition to Native American uranium miners and some Idaho residents near other radioactive sites, Cordova adds.

The bottom line: "It begs the question: Why were people near the Trinity Test left out of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act?" Cordova says. "Many of them were people of color."

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