Former McDonnell Douglas workers, residents file suit over radiation exposure
Three former aircraft workers and seven north St. Louis County residents who say they were exposed to radioactive waste stored near Lambert-St. Louis International Airport after World War II, have filed a federal lawsuit against Mallinckrodt and the Cotter Corporation.
Each area has been largely cleaned up by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after unsafe levels of radioactive elements were found in the soil and water, and some work is ongoing.
“There were a lot of fellow employees that are no longer with us. And I feel that I’m speaking for them,” said the lead plaintiff, 72-year-old Bob Malon, who survived a colon cancer diagnosis in 2004.
The personal injury lawsuit, filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, seeks unspecified damages.
The campus of McDonnell Douglas, purchased by Boeing in 1997, sits next to Lambert Airport in north St. Louis County. After World War II, the military used a 22-acre tract of land in between to store waste generated by Mallinckrodt. The St. Louis-based chemical company had contracted with the federal government to process uranium for the atomic bomb, and needed a place to temporarily store tons of residues, barium sulfate cake and contaminated scrap.
A photo from the Army Corps of Engineers shows the waste stacked in metal drums, which were sold to another contractor and hauled away in the 1960’s. Everything else was buried underground, reducing radiation levels on the surface to limits that were acceptable at the time, according to the Corps of Engineers, which is tasked with legacy waste cleanup throughout the country.
In those years, Malon worked across the street as a crib attendant, handing tools up to the workers who installed rivets on fighter jets. Later, he ferried documents and supplies between work sites on the McDonnell Douglas campus.
“Airplanes are constantly coming and going—the jet engines would kick up dust and a lot times it was so bad you’d go inside the building to get away from it,” Malon recalled from his home in St. Peters.
When Malon worked at McDonnell Douglas, he drove past the waste disposal site on his way to work. It was surrounded by a chain link fence, with trefoil signs warning of ionizing radiation. Sometimes, Malon said, people would be working inside.
“Not on a daily basis but on maybe a weekly or monthly basis. They were in hazmat suits and also had the face gear on,” Malon said. “And when we went back in the building doing our job, the employees would talk about, what are those guys doing out there? And just never assumed anything, and figured they know what they’re doing.”
Malon is convinced his job at McDonnell Douglas exposed him to excessive radiation because he worked so close to the waste site, and that it put him at a higher risk for colon cancer.
“[The doctors] were just totally bamboozled why I even had it. Since I never smoked, I don’t drink and I’m basically in pretty good shape,” he said.
The ten plaintiffs claim that Mallinckrodt and other federal contractors acted negligently and allowed materials to leach into the environment, putting people nearby at a greater risk for several types of cancer and thyroid disease.
The relationship between exposure to ionizing radiation and a person’s risk of developing cancer is not entirely clear. Humans receive low doses of radiation from the natural environment every day. Federal agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) generally accept that radiation at higher doses has a greater effect on a person’s health.
The NRC requires its licensees, which include nuclear power plants, to limit radiation exposure to the public to 100 millirem a year above background levels. Annual doses for adults working with radioactive materials must be below 5,000 millirem a year. The 10 plaintiffs allege they were exposed to doses above 500 millirem a year without their knowledge.
Ken Brennan, the lead attorney on the lawsuit, hopes to consolidate it with ongoing litigation filed in 2012, McClurg et. al v. MI Holdings, Inc. et al. About 250 people who believe their health issues are connected to their exposure to radioactive contamination in north St. Louis County are represented by the consolidated suit, and another 150 have filed similar suits.
“We reconstruct, based on data that’s available, how much radiation was stored at the airport site, how that radiation was then distributed through weather and erosion and wind patterns,” Brennan said.
Brennan estimates a quarter of the plaintiffs are former employees of Boeing or McDonnell Douglas. The majority lived near the airport or along Coldwater Creek. Many plaintiffs, including Malon, were made aware of the litigation by a Facebook group that has tracked cancer and other health issues near Coldwater Creek since 2011, when a group of friends planning a high school reunion realized that many of their classmates had developed cancer or passed away.
“When we determine the extent to which each of our clients was exposed to radiation, we use existing science to demonstrate that their cancers were more likely than not caused by that radiation,” Brennan said.
Mallinckrodt and Cotter officials declined to discuss the case.
In court, Mallinckrodt and the other defendants have filed several motions to dismiss the larger case since 2012. In the latest one, they argue the plaintiffs’ claims are too vague to prove they were exposed to levels of radiation that are higher than federal limits. They also say the plaintiffs waited too long to make their case: Missouri has a five-year statute of limitations for personal injury suits.
“Each claim should be individually addressed so that the scientific data can be properly evaluated. We look forward to the opportunity to present the facts and evidence in court,” Mallinckrodt attorney Dave Erickson wrote in an email.
The people who worked at the waste site could be eligible to receive compensation from the federal government—and 48 of them have filed to do so, according to the Department of Labor.
By law, contractors and subcontractors who worked at nuclear sites between 1942 and 1971 can receive a lump sum and coverage of medical bills if they meet certain conditions. 22 cancers are specified in the law, including lung, breast and colon cancer.
Residents and nearby workers are not included, but Malon and the other plaintiffs believe their injuries stem from the same contamination.
"No one was informed of anything that was going on," he said. "Thank God I'm still here, for some reason. But I'm carrying this with me all the time. I get reminded every day."