Updated 5:00 p.m., Dec. 3 with information on the county study - Federal scientists were in St. Louis County on Wednesday to talk with area residents about a planned public health assessment related to contamination along Coldwater Creek.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) announced last month that it would be launching the study to evaluate people’s potential exposures to radiation and other hazardous substances in and around the creek.
At Wednesday's open house, federal environmental health scientist Erin Evans provided an overview of the public health assessment process and took notes as people described their contact with the creek and subsequent health problems.
According to Evans, the assessment will not be able to determine whether any individual person’s cancer or other disease was caused by pollutants from the creek. “What we can do is we can say, there’s the potential that someone was exposed to this amount of a contaminant, and it may have led to — or could lead to — a health effect," Evans said.
She said the first step is for people to tell her about any health problems they believe could be linked to the creek, and to describe how they could have been exposed. "Were you fishing in the creek, were you playing in the creek, were you getting the mud on your hands and coming into your home, did you have a garden," Evans said. "Those kinds of details are really important to us."
Information gathered from area residents will be combined with any available data on environmental contamination in and around the creek to try to determine whether people could have been harmed by their exposures.
Florissant resident Lisa Everett grew up by Coldwater Creek and attended Wednesday's meeting. She said it’s about time that someone took people’s concerns seriously. “I just want somebody to acknowledge that it happened, and that people are sick because of it," Everett said. "And get those people the help and the support that they need.”
At the end of what could be a two-year assessment process, the agency will release a report with its findings and recommendations for next steps. Those could include an epidemiological study, or educational outreach to medical professionals and area residents.
St. Louis County had previously said that it would be collaborating with the ATSDR on a health study focused on a limited number of cancers known to be associated with exposure to low levels of ionizing radiation.
County public health director Faisal Khan said after some preliminary work to look into that approach, he and his staff decided it was not going to be feasible. "We realized that [a cancer cohort study] really is not going to get us to the strategic objective here, which is to get other federal agencies, and money, and resources focused on mitigation of risk and helping people," Khan said. "That is better achieved through a public health assessment, because that carries scientific weight and [federal] agency weight far beyond anything that we could offer."
He said the county would be working closely with the ATSDR on the public health assessment, but that the federal agency would take the lead on communicating about it with the public. Referring to Wednesday's open house, Khan said he "wasn’t too thrilled with how they went about doing it, because they missed out on emphasizing the collaborative piece altogether."
When asked about the county's role in the public health assessment, Evans only said that her agency would share information with county staff but would not provide the local health department with any funding.
The first ATSDR open house ran from 2-8 p.m. at the Indian Trails Branch of the St. Louis County Public Library at 8400 Delport Drive in Overland. More public meetings are planned for sometime early next year, but the dates and locations of those meetings have not yet been set.
Anyone who is unable to make it to a meeting can also contact Evans directly via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 913-551-1311.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is testing soil in the neighborhoods along Coldwater Creek for radiation and is also cleaning up contaminated areas, such as St. Cin Park in Hazelwood. The Corps will hold a separate meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 9, to update the public on the status of those efforts. That meeting will take place at 6 p.m. at the James J. Eagan Center at #1 James J. Eagan Drive in Florissant.
Coldwater Creek was contaminated with uranium processing waste from the development of atomic weapons for the Manhattan Project and the Atomic Energy Commission during the 1940s and 50s. People who grew up near the creek have reported cancers, autoimmune disorders and other serious health problems through an online survey on a Facebook group devoted to these issues. The group has also produced maps showing 2,725 cases of disease reported as of this August.
Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience