Go to virtually any film history website, search for "The Conqueror," released in 1956, and the odds are that there will be several paragraphs on how a disproportionate number of the cast and crew died from cancer. Most citations will then explain that this cancer was caused by their exposure to radioactive fallout on location near St. George, Utah—derived from atomic tests earlier in that decade.
An incredibly biased article from the November 10, 1980 issue of People magazine can probably be credited for re-igniting this baseless conspiracy theory. Here are a few indisputable facts that were strangely left out of the People piece:
1. All the stars mentioned were heavy smokers, including John Wayne at five packs a day.
2. 91 of the 220 cast and crew members were said to have contracted cancer, but given the 40% lifetime rate for all individuals, this is hardly disproportionate. The People article quotes the late Robert Pendleton from the University of Utah saying that "30-some" cancers would be expected in a cohort that size, contrary to all data from the National Cancer Institute. The Pendleton quote appears in almost identical form on dozens of websites.
3. The cancer mortality rate for Utah was then and continues to be one of the lowest in the country, with Washington County (containing St. George) among the lowest in the state.
While there is no science to support a cancer cluster here, politics eventually won out, and a program was set up to pay off anyone (usually $50,000) who got certain cancers and happened to live in the appropriate counties at the right time. Even if you believe that the fallout was a factor, radiogenic cancers typically do not take 40-50 years to manifest themselves. Yet, such "victims" were paid off just the same.
Given that well over $1 billion has been paid out by this program since 1990, this whole business may qualify as the most successful environmental fraud of all time.
Check out more details in my Health News Digest article.