Updated: Sep 24, 2021
By Gina Tabonares-Reilly
For nearly 20 years, Guam has been lobbying the U.S. Congress for inclusion in Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) program that compensates those affected by the nuclear fallout in the Pacific.
Most members of the Pacific Association of Radiation Survivors have since died without seeing any recognition or compensation.
It has been an endless battle and PARS is not giving up. This time Guam sees a new glimmer of hope.
Two bills, S. 2798 and H.R. 5338, were introduced in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on Sept. 22, proposing to extend the coverage of RECA to Guam and to increase awards for “downwinders” from $50,000 to $150,000.
As companion bills both pieces of legislation are able to move through both chambers of the Congress simultaneously, enhancing and expediting its chance of passage, according to Congressman Michael San Nicolas, Guam's delegate to Congress.
Of note, the bills expand RECA to include Guam, once enacted would provide a one-time benefit to "downwinders" of $150,000 as persons who were present in one of the specified areas near nuclear weapons test sites during a period of atmospheric testing and developed one of the types of cancers specified in the statute.
"Cancer has touched every family on Guam in some way, with our local community organization PARS advocating for downwinder recognition for many years," San Nicolas said.
"We are honored to be a part of the dual Chamber effort to expand RECA and include those on Guam who suffered from the cancers associated with exposure, it is both just and necessary that we do so, and we will continue to apprise the people as the measures progress."
The original RECA legislation, which covered those affected by nuclear fallout during atmospheric testing in Nevada and the Marshall Islands, did not include Guam “downwinder” or area affected by nuclear fallout.
Robert N. Celestial, president of PARS, lead other advocates who sent written and oral testimony in 2004 to the Board on Radiation Effects Research Committee to address Guam’s RECA eligibility.
Celestial’s testimony, in conjunction with other testimonies like those provided by Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo, Dr. Chris Perez, and U.S. Navy Lt. Charles Bert Schreiber convinced the BRER Committee to conclude in 2005 that Guam residents did receive measurable fallout during the period of U.S. nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific from 1946 to 1962.
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S. 2798 was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sens. Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) with eight co-sponsors. The House of Representatives bill was introduced by Representative Teresa Leger Fernández (D-NM) and 14 co-sponsors including Guam’s Delegate Michael F.Q. San Nicolas.
The cancer diagnoses eligible under RECA include: leukemia (excluding chronic lymphocytic leukemia), multiple myeloma, lymphoma (other than Hodgkin’s disease), and primary cancers of the thyroid, male or female breast, esophagus, stomach, pharynx, small intestine, pancreas, bile ducts, gallbladder, salivary gland, urinary bladder, brain, colon, ovary, liver (except if cirrhosis or hepatitis B is indicated) and lung.
In 2005, the National Research Council released a report, stating that “Guam did receive measurable fallout from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific.” The council recommended that people living on Guam during that period be compensated under RECA, “in a way similar to that of persons considered to be downwinders.”
According to incidence data reported from Guam to the Pacific Regional Central Cancer Registry between 2007 and 2018, seven of the top ten adult cancers on Guam are compensable under RECA.
“I want to thank Senator Crapo, Senator Luján, Representative Leger Fernández, and their co-sponsors, including Guam’s own Delegate Michael F. Q. San Nicolas for introducing their legislation in support of adding Guam as a RECA downwinder,” Speaker Therese Terlaje said.
“This legislation is important for securing the justified compensation and benefits our island radiation survivors need. The $150,000 for each cancer patient or survivor will help offset the exorbitant costs of treatment in Guam and improve our island’s overall access to healthcare opportunities.”
Terlaje plans to introduce a resolution this week that expresses the 36th Guam Legislature’s support of both congressional bills to recognize and provide benefits for Guam radiation survivors.