Micronesians in Hawai‘i- A Closer Look (Part 1)

Nov 11, 2015

The Wilson cloud from test Baker, situated just offshore from Bikini Island at top of the picture.
Credit Wikipedia Commons

The rising cost of health care is a concern for all Hawai‘i residents.  But one group in particular is facing added medical expenses.  About 10,000 Micronesians live in Hawai‘i.  They're at the center of an issue dating back to U.S. nuclear testing in the South Pacific.  This week, Jackie Young is taking a closer look at some of that history—and how it impacts us today.

From 1946 to 1958, the U.S. Navy set off 67 nuclear explosions in Micronesia.  That’s the equivalent of more than 7,000 Hiroshima bombs.  Witnesses described the nuclear fallout as bright-colored.  Some young children mistook it for candy.  They ate the radioactive waste and got burned.

Christina Lokebol’s mom was living on Rongelap Atoll at the time. 

“My mom was 6 or 7 … They thought it was like, ‘It’s colorful, it’s ice cream, let’s eat!’  So they described those things and when they grabbed it, they got burned all over.  Their hair fell out.  They were all crying.”

The fallout contaminated the ground … and the water … even the food being prepared in the schools.

“The food was in the school, all the food for the children was all covered up.  But they didn’t know it was radiation.  They said, ‘Eat all the food.’”

Christina’s mom, Betty Edmond, developed thyroid cancer and lost her hair, one of her children was born brain-damaged, and two of her sons had thyroid cancer. Christina’s dad, Billiet Edmond, had leukemia. 

Christina is 48 and now lives in Whitmore Village.  She has a kidney infection and diabetes, her gall bladder had to be removed, and she’s hard of hearing in one ear.

Dr. Neal Palafox of the University of Hawaiʻi medical school has been researching the Micronesian population since the 1980s, and says the nuclear fallout affected more than just the Marshall Islands. 

“There’s no wall where the cloud ends, so there’s radioactive strontium from the Bravo detonation that was picked up in Guam.  And so the cloud went all over the globe, wherever the winds went, and dropped the radiation throughout, all through Micronesia.” 

The Compact of Free Association—or COFA—was approved by the U.S. government in 1986 for the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau—allowing those residents to live in the U.S. without a visa, and access healthcare via Medicaid.

But Micronesians were dropped from Medicaid as part of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act.  Despite a series of legal challenges, this past March, about 8,000 Micronesians were unilaterally transferred to Kaiser or HMSA plans under the new Affordable Care Act.  They now face premiums and co-payments many can’t afford.

This has raised multiple issues, ranging from the budget of the state Department of Human Services to the misuse of emergency rooms as primary care facilities.

Tomorrow, we'll take a closer look at the impact this policy shift is having on Hawai‘i.