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Healing America’s Forgotten Nuclear Refugees Is One Woman’s Mission via KQED

Nestled in Orange County, among the Starbucks, strip malls and highways, there’s a tiny immigrant community with an enormous historical burden.

They come from the Marshall Islands, an archipelago in the South Pacific made up of 2,000 small tropical atolls. And they have the unfortunate distinction of having the lowest per capita income of any racial and ethnic group in the entire United States.

In Southern California, the Marshallese settled in Costa Mesa. Some of the adults work as baggage handlers at nearby airports. Others work at a medical device company, sewing pig valves onto heart stents. Although poor, they are knit together by their faith and their history.

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Briand started training as a health educator 12 years ago. She wanted to help her community deal with alarming rates of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Marshall Islanders have the second-highest rate of diabetes in the world, and they also suffer from thyroid cancer, breast cancer, and cancers of the blood, stomach and colon.

These illnesses, Briand says, can be traced back 70 years, to the immediate aftermath of  World War II, when the U.S. occupied the atolls of the Marshall Islands and used them as a nuclear proving ground.

Over the course of 12 years, the U.S. detonated 67 nuclear bombs there.

“I always call it nuke. They nuke us!” she says. “And we never had these kind of diseases before. And I do believe it was because we were exposed to radiation. It was too strong.”

Briand’s own family has suffered. Her older and younger sisters are cancer survivors, of breast and thyroid, respectively. Both these cancers are on an official list from the Nuclear Claims Tribunal of 37 cancers and diseases linked to nuclear weapons testing.

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Today, there are more than 23,000 Marshallese living in the U.S., and about 2,000 in California. They were able to come because of an agreement made between the Marshall Islands and the U.S. — the Compact of Free Association. The Compact allows Marshallese to work and live freely on U.S. soil for as long as they want, but does not convey citizenship.

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But the effects of the radiation and fallout may extend even farther. According to researchers, it’s possible that the radiation from the nuclear weapons tests can cause genetic damage that can be inherited. The possibility haunts Greta.

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Marshallese culture also stigmatizes illness. Briand says this applies to any sickness: “You don’t tell anybody,” she says. “Whenever a person is sick, they always think that they did something wrong and God is punishing them.”

A Childhood Among the Bombs

To understand the root of the Marshallese health problems today, it’s important to go back to the late 1940s, when the Cold War began. At that time, the nuclear arms race was heating up and the U.S. needed a place, far from the populated mainland, to test bigger and more destructive nuclear weapons. Some of the 67 nuclear weapons tested in the Marshall Islands were detonated underwater, and some were dropped from airplanes. Some of the islands were completely destroyed.

When Briand was 5, she witnessed the largest and most radioactive of these bombs from her home island of Likiep. It was called Castle Bravo and it had a nuclear force equivalent to 1,000 times the force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

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Kon Kon Wasay, 82, was a teenager when she saw the bomb. She remembers that she was outside playing with six other girls and one boy. “All of a sudden, we hear this loud noise and it looked like something evaporating.”

Afterward, her friends all got sick. They have all passed away from thyroid cancers and other diseases.

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Johnston has unearthed previously classified documents revealing an invasive medical program called Project 4.1 that the U.S. performed on some Marshallese to learn how radiation damages the human body.

Over the course of four decades and 72 research trips to the islands, U.S. medical teams examined the Marshallese using X-rays and photography, and took samples of blood, urine and tissue. Some Marshallese even received radioisotope injections and underwent experimental surgery.

Since that time, the U.S. government has formally recognized some of the harm caused by the bombings, and the U.S. government pays for health care and government assistance on the Marshall Islands. But those programs aren’t available to the Marshallese who have migrated to California and other states, and many remain poor and isolated.

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