New data are adding to concerns that exposure to radioactive waste in Coldwater Creek could be causing cancers and other health problems.
Nuclear waste generated by the Mallinckrodt Company was dumped in North St. Louis County after World War II, contaminating the creek and surrounding areas.
Current and former residents of the neighborhoods near Coldwater Creek formed a Facebook group a few years ago, worried about the high rates of cancer among their childhood friends. That group now has more than 8,400 members.
The Facebook group generated an online survey, which has collected 3,300 illness reports from people who live ― or used to live ― near the creek. Many have since moved out of the area.
Reported health problems included 1,242 cases of cancer. Among them were 95 cases of brain cancer, 59 cases of thyroid cancer, and 39 cases of appendix cancer, which is diagnosed in fewer than 1,000 Americans each year.
The survey also found 320 cases of auto-immune disorders.
Northwestern University economist Diane Schanzenbach grew up in Florissant and helped analyze the data.
She said she was struck by how many of her peers were getting cancer in their 30s and 40s.
But Schanzenbach says more analysis needs to be done to link people’s diseases with their exposure to the radioactive waste in Coldwater Creek.
“Based on what we’ve collected here, there’s certainly the need of a proper epidemiological study," Schanzenbach said. “The Missouri Department of Health came out with one that was not adequate. And what we’d like to see is someone really approach this question with the resources to answer it.”
The 2013 Missouri Department of Health study did not find a link between Coldwater Creek cancer rates and radiation exposure but relied on limited data.
Maps generated using the new survey data show cancers and other diseases clustered in the neighborhoods around the creek.
Jenell Wright, who also grew up in Florissant, says she and other former residents have contacted local, state, and federal officials to make them aware of the survey results.
“We’re hoping they can assist with us getting the word out to the medical community,” Wright said. “Because we want people to be caught earlier in their progression of disease, so they have a better chance of getting another five, 10 years of life.”
Wright wants the government to pay for people’s medical care ― and for more radioactivity testing and clean-up in the neighborhoods around the creek.
“Until they had these maps, we kept being told, oh, prove to us, prove to us, prove to us,” Wright said. “And we keep saying well, we’re from the Show Me State. We’re showing you, and that’s where we’re at.”
County, state, and federal health officials all declined to comment for this story.
You can view a PowerPoint presentation summarizing all of the survey results here.
Follow Veronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience