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Workers check equipment days after the Operation Plumbbob nuclear test in Nevada in 1957. Such tests created radiation that affected the health of Americans to the north and east – the people who are now known as “Downwinders.”

The United States was engaged in a nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union for half a century. It came to be known as a Cold War, since most of the blows in the conflict were indirect, or symbolic. But besides conflicts in Vietnam, Afghanistan and other scattered parts of the globe, a procession of nuclear tests escalated in staggering ferocity. Virtually no immediate casualties were counted.

But the effects on the Soviet side – especially in Kazakhstan – eventually came to light, after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

And on the American side… were the “Downwinders.” They were, and are, millions of citizens who lived unwittingly in places where fallout from the infamous Nevada Test Site would drift.

The extent of the health catastrophe, including cancers and deaths, that were downwind from the infamous proving ground first began to be understood in the 1980s and 1990s. But now the University of Utah is attempting to archive and preserve the experience of the people who lived through, or died, of the nuclear testing.

The “Downwinders of Utah Archive” is up at the school’s J. Willard Marriott Library website. It collects oral histories, and curate a growing digital trove of documents, maps, scientific studies, videos, and other material telling this relatively-unknown history of 20th century U.S. history.

A collection of stories tell a little-known side of American history that got swept away in Cold War hysteria.

Mary Dickson, a woman who grew up in the early 1960s in Salt Lake City, said the children in Utah all did normal things without any idea of potential health effects from radioactivity. They splashed in puddles, ate snow, ate vegetables from the garden, and drank milk from cows. And her peers began falling sick.

“We grew up pretty oblivious to the fallout that was dropping down on all of us,” said Dickson. “We saw people getting sick in our neighborhood, we saw people getting cancers, and tumors… We never connected it to fallout. We just thought it was bad luck.”

Dickson herself developed thyroid cancer in the 1980s.

Iodine-131 was the culprit behind an unknown number of deaths over decades, according to the materials. The National Cancer Institute in 1997 found that exposure “downwind” to the tests between 1945 and 1963 was most acute in the first few days following detonations – and most exposures occurred through drinking fresh milk. The radioactive isotopes did not get transmitted as readily through eating fruits and vegetables, since the radioactivity sticks on the surface was often washed or peeled off.

The states most affected were Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, and Montana. But the I-131 traveled as far as the Northeast, collecting on grass that was eaten by cows and goats – leading to the contaminated milk, the NCI said.

For those who were exposed, the most common health problem is thyroid cancer and related diseases. Since the I-131 collects in the thyroid gland, it causes mutations there. But the tumors that result are often treatable, according to the NCI.

Some compensation is available for those who can prove they were affected by the nuclear weapons tests. A payment of $50,000 is currently available for those who lived or worked in certain counties of Utah, Nevada, or Arizona for at least two years between 1951 and 1962 – and who later developed certain cancers. The program, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program, is administered through the U.S. Department of Justice.

Of course, the Soviet Union’s nuclear history was even more troubled, including the people living in the so-called “Polygon” area of Kazakhstan that hosted more than 450 nuclear tests.

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