‘They Did Not Realize We Are Human Beings’

“Testings on Bikini Atoll commenced within days and U.S. officials ordered families out of their homes to a more distant island. It was the start of a series of tests that would end up spreading nuclear fallout across the region. Within several years, islanders were suffering from thyroid cancers and a slew of other illnesses that researchers quickly determined were linked to nuclear testing. While the U.S. finally ended its nuclear tests in 1958—after detonating 67 bombs that vaporized entire islands and left deep craters in others—horrifying birth defects cropped up for decades.” 

“More serious reckoning with that legacy took decades. Under a deal hammered out in the 1980s, the U.S. allowed residents of the Marshall Islands, as well as those of Micronesia and Palau, to relocate to the United States under what’s called the Compact of Free Association. The agreement also promised them access to health coverage through the American safety-net health program Medicaid—a pledge that collapsed a decade later, an incidental casualty of Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton’s sweeping welfare reform package in 1996, which excluded the islanders from a list of Medicaid-eligible groups.

“I’m not sure whether we’ll ever know whether it was intentional to remove the [island] communities from Medicaid or just something folks missed,””

“the Marshallese who lived through the nuclear tests, which ended in 1958, have largely passed away, with the average life expectancy on the islands reaching only 63 for men and 67 for women. Their children and grandchildren, inheritors of the toxic legacy, have looked for new homes as the islands face old problems like radiation and emerging crises like climate change.

Pockets of islanders have since cropped up in the continental United States, with large populations in Hawaii and Arkansas and smaller circles in places like Oklahoma, Oregon and Dubuque, Iowa. And they bring their illnesses with them.”

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