February March 2013 Nukewatch Quarterly
When it comes to understanding the incredible concentration of cancers, birth defects, and other serious ailments related to a Manhattan Project-era radioactive waste dumping ground in north St. Louis County, Facebook has proven a far better resource for current and former residents than the State of Missouri.
A report released by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services in March concluded that elevated cancer rates near Flourissant, Missouri, are probably not linked to the radioactive waste dumped in the area from 1947 through the 1970s. Researchers studied the prevalence of 27 types of cancer among those who lived within six zip codes surrounding Coldwater Creek from 1996 to 2004. Though epidemiologists did identify an elevated incidence of some cancers among the population, they attributed those higher rates to socioeconomic factors such as smoking, lack of exercise, poor diet, and diabetes.
Flourissant natives Janell Rodden Wright and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, who are part of the Facebook group that connects residents of the Coldwater Creek area affected by illness, called the study “completely uninformative” in a recent piece published in the St. Louis Beacon. They point out that according to the American Community Survey from 2007-2011, over 75% of those who live in one of the zip codes studied moved there after 1990 – when clean-up efforts were already underway. The study did not account for any cases of cancer in those who were diagnosed after they moved outside the area, which Wright and Schanzenbach say is the case with most of their classmates. State cancer registries only record a patient’s address at the time of diagnosis. Also ignored by the Department of Health report were the many cases of cancer among current residents diagnosed after 2004, as well as many non-cancer health issues.
When Wright, Schanzenbach, and their childhood friends swam in Coldwater Creek near their homes in Flourissant, MO, in the 1970s and 1980s, they had no idea they were immersing themselves in water tainted with radioactive waste. In fact, until Wright and her classmates began to investigate the strange prevalence of rare cancers and other diseases among their peer group in 2011, they had no idea the area where they grew up had served as a dumping ground for radioactive waste produced by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works at its downtown St. Louis plant, which purified uranium that the U.S. used to create atomic bombs in the 1940s.
Wright became suspicious when two of her friends were diagnosed with appendix cancer within a few months of each other. Both were told this disease is very rare, afflicting one in a million people. She reached out to others who grew up in the area through Facebook, and the results are astonishing. Among those who had lived within a four square mile area near the creek, over 2,000 cases of cancers, autoimmune disorders, thyroid disease, birth defects (including three cases of conjoined twins), and health issues among children (including seven children of Wright’s classmates who had their thyroid removed before age 10) have been reported. Twenty-two cases of appendix cancer have now been reported.
The group’s google map showing the residence or former residence of those who have died or fallen ill shows an alarming cluster of cases around Coldwater Creek and the St. Louis Airport Site (SLAPS), Hazelwood Interim Storage Site (HISS), Futura Property, and West Lake Landfill where waste was dumped or stored. Once elevated levels of radioactive materials were discovered in Coldwater Creek in 1989, the Army Corps of Engineers was charged with its clean-up, which they report is nearly complete. As Nukewatch reported in the Winter 2012 article “Cold War Era Dumps Heating Up St. Louis,” the West Lake Landfill, where 20 acres of radioactive waste was illegally dumped in 1973, contains over 15 feet of radioactive waste, and its temperature is rising at an alarming rate. The landfill’s neighbors complain of terrible smells and emissions that burn eyes and cause headaches. Current and former residents of the Coldwater Creek area had hoped that a conclusive cancer cluster study would help them qualify for the same “downwinder” status granted to those affected by atomic bomb testing in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, which would have given them access to medical assistance.
Three separate groups of affected residents have brought lawsuits against Mallinckrodt Chemical, which is now owned by Covidien Pharmaceuticals, seeking damages comparable to those awarded to the company’s former St. Louis plant workers, who are eligible for coverage of medical expenses plus $150,000. On March 27, a federal judge dismissed seven of the suits’ eight claims. The single remaining claim will require residents to prove their injuries occurred no more than five years before the suits were filed, based on Missouri’s statute of limitations laws. Still, the groups’ lawyers are optimistic that justice will be served. In a statement released after the judge’s dismissal, lead counsel Marc Bern said, “We expect to prevail for these innocent victims and end this terrible nightmare for so many people.”
Though their plight remains unrecognized by the government, those affected by the Coldwater Creek radiation are taking grassroots action to uncover the truth and serve as resources for each other. Their Facebook page, “Coldwater Creek – Just the Facts Please,” is a testament to the power of grassroots organizing: its members share legal and medical resources, coping strategies, action alerts, and an unwavering commitment to helping each other deal with an enormous tragedy that comprises only a very small portion of the U.S. government’s atomic bomb legacy.
Sources: KSDK News, St. Louis, Feb. 1; St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Mar. 21, Mar. 29; St. Louis Beacon, Mar. 26