Radioactive waste in Coldwater Creek increases cancer risk, says federal report
A federal government agency has concluded radioactive contamination in a north St. Louis County creek could cause increased risk of certain types of cancer in residents who live near the north St. Louis County waterway.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s public health assessment, released Monday, states that residents who were exposed to the area around Coldwater Creek had a higher risk of exposure to radioactive contaminants, and thus a higher risk of bone cancer, lung cancer or leukemia. The federal organization is also calling for the public to comment and add to the report through Aug. 31.
Advocates for residents near Coldwater Creek were pleased to hear representatives of a federal agency acknowledge what they have long suspected.
“What they’re saying [is] they confirm our exposure could be linked to our cancer and our illnesses,” community activist Kim Visintine said.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry assesses the risk of hazardous waste sites, among other tasks. It’s part of the Department of Health and Human Services and is based at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta.
Radioactive waste generated by the Mallinckrodt Company from work on the Manhattan Project was stored in an open site close to the creek. Over years, that waste migrated into the dirt in the Coldwater Creek bed. A report from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services found an increased rate of certain types of cancer in the area around the creek.
According to the federal agency’s report, the highest risk for exposure is in children and adults who lived near the creek in 1960s through the 1990s.
“Our evaluation did find an increased risk of some cancer, especially for the past exposures, people who grew up in the area and played very often or frequently in or near the creek,” said Jill Dykin, an environmental health scientist for the agency.
Dykin added the report can't link individual people's health problems with exposures, just draw a connection to the risk.
For Visintine, that’s enough. The former north St. Louis County resident and the co-founder of the group Coldwater Creek - Just the Facts said the report confirms years of suspicions.
“It's one thing for a group of citizens to say there's an issue, and another thing to actually receive government validation,” Visintine said.
She said the federal acknowledgement could pave the way for residents to receive relief from the government through the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which provides compensation to people whose cancers can be linked to nuclear weapons tests.
“The big thing you’re now eligible for these grants and funds for your community screening clinics, for insurance,” Visintine said. “To even get to that point, to pursue legislation, you have to have the CDC acknowledge there was exposure.
“It’s a big long process and we’ve come a long way but we sure have a long way to go."
The recently released report noted that since the potential number of increased cancer cases is small, that residents with no symptoms shouldn’t seek health screenings. However, it does recommend anyone at risk tell their doctor they lived near the radioactive waste when disclosing their personal health history.
It also recommends that the Army Corps of Engineers and its Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program, which is responsible for cleaning up the site, begin sampling previously untested areas such as basements or homes that experienced flooding from the creek.
When reached Monday afternoon, a Corps spokeswoman said officials there were still reviewing the new report and trying to see how much it would impact the program.
Representatives of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry will visit St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Florissant on June 27 and 28 to answer questions and elicit feedback on the report and will hopefully receive more information to add to its findings.
“We’ve been working with the community and some community leaders through our entire process,” Dykin said. “We actually based a lot if the assumptions we made for how frequently and how long kids played in and along Coldwater Creek on information we got from the community.”
Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge