By Matt Blitz
The ground shook, a brilliant white flash enveloped the sky, and the world changed forever. Code name “Trinity,” the bomb test at dawn on July 16, 1945 in Alamogordo, New Mexico was the first large-scale atomic weapons testing in history. Only three weeks later two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan.
More than 1,900 miles away from Alamogordo, at the Rochester, NY headquarters of Eastman Kodak, a flood of complaints came in from business customers who had recently purchased sensitive X-ray film from the company. Black exposed spots on the film, or “fogging,” had rendered it unusable. This perplexed many Kodak scientists, who had gone to great lengths to prevent contaminations like this.
Julian H. Webb, a physicist in Kodak’s research department, took it upon himself to dig deeper and test the destroyed film. What he uncovered was shocking. The fogging of Kodak’s film and the Trinity test in New Mexico were eerily connected, revealing some chilling secrets about the nuclear age.
While it is unclear whether Webb knew about the Trinity test when he was conducting his research in 1945, his report from 1949 is unabashedly clear: “The most likely explanation of the source of this radioactive contaminant appears to be that it consisted of wind-borne radioactive fission products derived from the atom-bomb detonation in New Mexico on July 16, 1945.”
Did Kodak have a responsibility to tell the American public about the fallout? Says Stephen Schwartz, an independent nuclear weapons expert and policy analyst who edited and co-wrote the book Atomic Audit for the Brookings Institution in 1998: “Did they have a moral or ethical responsibility? I think you could make a strong case that they did,” he says. “But I wouldn’t look at Kodak with today’s eyes. They were doing their jobs and perhaps simply didn’t know any better.”
Ortmeyer agrees: “I think that the responsibility fell to the government…[Kodak] knew the impact it had on their film, but for them to speak out on a public health issue… that wasn’t their field of expertise. I can only surmise that in the era of the Manhattan Project, if you are behind the curtain and sworn to secrecy…. You are not going to go there.”
In 1997, the National Cancer Institute released findings that linked the Nevada nuclear testing to the release of Iodine-131 which can lead to thyroid cancer. In response, a Congressional hearing questioned why the government withheld such information. Led by Sen. Tom Harkin (who incorrectly said that Kodak discovered the radioactive fallout because of “corn husks,” not strawboard), the hearing made clear that this was a public health crisis, and that every single American alive at the time was threatened by the radioactive fallout. Julian Webb knew this five decades earlier when he discovered traces of faraway weapons testing in America’s water supply. Why no one told the American people remains a question today.