Best Small Town Crusade

In tiny Emmett, Idaho, a band of citizens are speaking up. And insisting that the government listen.

from Reader's Digest Magazine | May 2005


Radioactive Sunsets

Over the next few years, as the “dust storms” blew in and out, folks began to hear about nuclear testing near Las Vegas and the radioactive clouds that drifted on the prevailing winds northeast to Idaho. The United States and the Soviet Union were in a furious battle to perfect the hydrogen bomb. As the Cold War raged, the government would conduct nearly 100 open-air tests between 1951 and 1962. But Garmon and other Emmett residents weren’t worried. Government authorities routinely reassured the public that the fallout posed little health hazard. Some Emmett residents even drove into the hills at night to get a better look at the pink sunsets caused by radioactive dust.

Like many Emmett moms, little Sheri Garmon’s mother fed her baby fresh milk from the family dairy herd. In time, the little girl with tousled brown hair grew into an outstanding student, a math whiz who was valedictorian of her high school class and a graduate of the University of Idaho. She became a CPA and moved to Nevada with her husband and daughter. But she returned often to the little valley to visit her parents and catch up on local news.

“Mom, I’ve got thyroid cancer,” Sheri told her parents by phone in 1991 when she got the diagnosis at age 39. It was odd — the Garmons came from sturdy stock, with several relatives living past 100. Cancer was a rarity, but as years passed, she began to hear of family members stricken by cancers. Uncle George, who lived a mile and a half away, had cancer of the bile duct. Aunt Betty was riddled with cancer of the lungs, liver and other organs. And it wasn’t just family. On every visit home, it seemed, she heard of another former schoolmate or neighbor with leukemia or thyroid cancer or brain tumors.

In 1997, Garmon learned that the cancer in her little valley might not be coincidence. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) released a study that year that tracked the fallout of the long-ago Nevada nuclear tests. Of the top five counties in the United States that absorbed the highest amount of radiation, four were in Idaho — including Gem County.

The dust was not as harmless as Emmett residents had been led to believe. It contained radioactive iodine-131, which was passed on in the milk of cows who ate the grass. Iodine concentrates in the thyroid, and children — who have smaller thyroids and drink more milk — are at greater risk than adults. One rad of radiation is about what one would get in 100 chest x-rays. Garmon, according to NCI estimates, had been exposed to 92 rads.

True to her rural Western roots, Garmon was a doer, not a complainer. “We make our own way,” she believed, “do the best we can, and move on.” As long as she could manage her thyroid cancer with medication, she would not dwell on negativity or blame. But in July 2004 — after being diagnosed with metastasized breast cancer, and after reading about a federal compensation program for “downwinders” with cancer — she had second thoughts.

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