Federal health agency to help study risks from radioactive creek in north St. Louis County | St. Louis Public Radio

Federal health agency to help study risks from radioactive creek in north St. Louis County

Nov 19, 2015

St. Louis County is teaming up with federal scientists to assess health risks from radioactive contamination in and around Coldwater Creek in north St. Louis County.

According to county public health department director Faisal Khan, the collaboration with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry will give a big boost to local efforts to study those risks, both in terms of financial resources and technical expertise.

Using an online survey, the Coldwater Creek Facebook group has been collecting information on illnesses in the communities around the creek. Close to 2,000 cases of cancer have been reported.
Credit Coldwater Creek - Just the Facts Please Facebook group

Coldwater Creek was contaminated with wastes from uranium processing for the nuclear weapons program in the decades during and following World War II. Many people who grew up near the creek have developed cancers or other diseases, and they want to know whether exposure to radioactive contamination is to blame.

Khan said the county's joint assessment with ATSDR will hopefully provide current and former north county residents with some long-awaited answers. “It's basically designed to look at certain types of cancers that are known and proven to be associated with increased exposure to radiation over time.”

Getting those answers still will not happen overnight. Khan said his department and the ATSDR are currently developing the methodology for the study, which is slated to begin sometime in the first quarter of 2016. Once it does, it could take 18 to 24 months to complete.

Jenell Wright grew up in Florissant and helps to manage a 12,600-member Facebook group devoted to investigating the possibility of a cancer cluster in the neighborhoods around Coldwater Creek. She announced the new public health assessment to the group Wednesday night, posting these ATSDR talking points.

Jenell Wright (front row, in blue) listens to speakers at a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers meeting about Coldwater Creek in January.
Credit Véronique LaCapra | St. Louis Public Radio

Wright said she has seen too many friends and former neighbors get sick and die from cancer. “We believe that we are the Petri dish of what can happen if you are exposed to low levels of ionizing radiation over time,” Wright said.

As of this summer, the Facebook group had tallied 2,725 cases of cancer and other diseases, self-reported through an online survey of current and former north county residents. A 2014 assessment by the Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services also found elevated numbers of certain cancers in the zip codes near the creek.

But without a more comprehensive cancer study, there has been no way to link those illnesses to exposure to radioactive contamination. Last September, the state wrote to the ATSDR to ask for help.

At a public meeting in January, St. Louis County public health department director Dr. Faisal Khan (right) introduced his Coldwater Creek risk assessment team: Rich DeClue, Brigette Davis and Lara Dalidowitz (right to left).
Credit Véronique LaCapra | St. Louis Public Radio

Wright said she and others have been working behind the scenes for years to try to get the federal government to step in. She hopes that the ATSDR's input will yield concrete recommendations and results. “Additional analysis, additional ideas, to help the community, both with their health, as well as remediation of the radionuclides in the area,” Wright said.

That remediation is being carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers through its Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program, also known as FUSRAP. It began in the 1990s and is still ongoing. The Corps will hold another meeting to update the public about the extent of radioactive contamination in north county on Dec. 9. That meeting will start at 6 p.m. and will take place in the James J. Eagan Center at #1 James J Eagan Drive in Florissant.

Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience