Radioactive wastes – the health toll in St Louis County

As they painstakingly mapped out the cases, Wright, Schanzenbach, and other members of the group were struck by the statistical improbability of what they were seeing. They found higher than average levels of leukemia, rare brain tumors, breast, and colon cancers — all known to be associated with nuclear radiation exposure according the Centers for Disease Control and the US Environmental Protection Agency. “We realized that we were seeing the effects of long-term exposure among people who grew up in North St. Louis County from the 1960s to the 1980s when the contamination was at its worst,” says Wright…….

Over the past four years, more than 100 current and former North St. Louis County residents have filed lawsuits against Mallinckrodt and the other companies involved in the manufacture and disposal of the nuclear waste, alleging these businesses’ reckless and negligent actions caused their cancers and other illnesses.

According to the latest data collected by the survey, as of 2015 there were 1,993 self-reported cancer cases, of which 45, including Patricia Barry’s, were cases of appendix cancer — a disease so rare that it’s usually seen in 1 of about 500,000 people a year in the United States.

In total, there were more than 2,725 reported cases of multi-generational illnesses, including rare cancers, thyroid problems, infertility, autoimmune diseases, and genetic mutations in children. (below, archival photo of waste barrels, st Louis) 


Nuclear Waste Creates Casualties of War in Missouri
TruthOut , 18 March 2016 By Lori FreshwaterEarth Island Journal | News Analysis “…….Google search revealed shocking information. It seemed there was an unusually high number of rare cancers and diseases afflicting current and former residents of several neighborhoods that Coldwater Creek ran through, including St. Ann. The most likely cause, the news reports and websites she scanned indicated, was the creek, which had been contaminated by radioactive waste from the World War II era.

It was the first time Barry learned that she’d grown up near a nuclear waste dump. The news tainted memories of her idyllic childhood forever. “I felt like everything was great when you were a child and then 20 years later you have cancer because of it,” she says, her voice choking up.

The story of how nuclear waste got into Coldwater Creek dates back nearly three-quarters of a century. In 1942, Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, a company based in downtown St. Louis, began secretly processing uranium for the Manhattan Project — the US government research project that produced the first atomic bombs. The project was codenamed “Tube Alloy Process.” Even after the war ended in 1945 following the US dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (which killed at least 129,000 Japanese citizens and remain the only use of nuclear weapons in history), Mallinckrodt continued to process tens of thousands of tons of uranium for the US military through the early years of the Cold War. From 1942 to 1957, the company was the only source of processed uranium in the entire country. During this time, Mallinckrodt processed about 50,000 tons of uranium at various locations in and around St. Louis. The company now manufactures pharmaceuticals, including opioids.

Processing the radioactive element, however, produced enormous amounts of nuclear waste, some of which was more radioactive than the processed uranium itself. As early on as 1946, Mallinckrodt began running out of space to store this waste on its facilities. The company began shipping the waste offsite to a 22-acre field acquired by the Manhattan Project, in a sparsely populated area north of St. Louis City, near the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

From 1946 to 1962, before there were any federal laws regulating disposal of hazardous waste, an estimated 133,007 tons of radioactive refuse was carelessly dumped at this site. Some of it was buried, some stored in barrels that soon rusted, and the rest simply left in piles, open to the elements. (Much of the waste was transported to the site in uncovered dump trucks, contaminating the land along the haul routes.) According to a September 1946 news report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, company officials assured the public that the material was harmless, claiming that it was “the type of refuse that any ordinary commercial firm of this type would store there.”

Over the years, wind erosion, stormwater runoff, groundwater discharge, and flooding carried unknown volumes of this extremely hazardous waste into Coldwater Creek, a 20-mile tributary of the Missouri River that runs past the westernmost boundary of the site and flows along several homes, parks, and schools in North St. Louis County municipalities such as Florissant, Hazelwood, Berkeley, and St. Ann. The toxins that ended up in Coldwater Creek include uranium-238 (half-life of 4.5 billion years) and thorium-232 (half-life of 14 billion years). The creek is prone to flooding, which it has done as far back as anyone can remember and still does to this day, bringing muddy sediments into backyards, basements, and playing fields.

In 1966, the now-defunct Atomic Energy Commission sold the waste at the site to a private company that moved some of the material half a mile away to Latty Avenue in Hazelwood — another journey that spilled material and contaminated properties along the way. The waste dumped at Latty Avenue was bought up in 1969 by yet another company, Cotter Corporation, which began drying and shipping it to Colorado. However, the drying process left behind some 8,700 tons of radioactive barium sulfate. During July to October 1973, Cotter quietly mixed this residue with 39,000 tons of topsoil and dumped it at the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, a few miles away, where it’s currently posing another potentially explosive problem. (See: “Something’s Burning“)

In 1974, the US Department of Energy established the Formerly Utilized Site Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP) to clean up sites contaminated by the federal government’s activities involving radioactive materials. But the contaminated sites in St. Louis city and county weren’t included under the FUSRAP program until 1990. Funding for that work was approved only in 1997, half a century after the dumping began. Eventually, more than 100 contaminated locations would be identified throughout the St. Louis region. Of the 46 FUSRAP sites across the country, St. Louis (city and county) is the largest both in terms of acreage and the quantity of radioactive waste material……..

For Jenell Rodden Wright, the nightmare began about seven years ago, around the time of the 20-year reunion of Florissant’s McCluer North High School class of 1988. “That’s around the time we all started jumping on Facebook and reconnecting,” she says. In the process of catching up with childhood friends, from both her high school and grade school (which was in the neighboring Hazelwood), she discovered that many of them were suffering from cancers or other unusual diseases. Yet others had passed on.

“In a six-house radius around my home, I knew four people with brain cancer, including a child. I looked up old neighbors on Facebook and asked them if they were OK, and they were not OK. Someone had lymphoma, someone had autoimmune disease, someone had lupus, some were having babies with birth defects.”Wright, who lived in the same house in Florissant for the first 27 years of her life, says the number of her peers and some of their children who were seriously ill or had died seemed so high that she began to think it had to be more than just bad luck. “Knowing statistics, knowing the conservative lifestyle these people had, I knew something was odd,” says the Ernst & Young certified public accountant and former corporate executive.

The numbers worried her so much that her husband encouraged her to start keeping a list of ill or deceased friends and community folks. By 2011 her list included 274 people. “We were going to funerals frequently or visiting sick friends,” she says. “It was heartbreaking.” Rumors started floating around about there being “something” in the creek that was killing people.

Around the same time, another McCluer North grad, Jeff Armstead, created a Facebook group called “Coldwater Creek — Just the Facts Please” as a place for former residents to report their illnesses. Wright jumped on board and soon became one of the group’s key members (who between them have advanced degrees in science, nursing, statistics, economics, accounting, and political science). The group began investigating the possibility of a cancer cluster in the communities surrounding North St. Louis County’s Coldwater Creek. “We knew we were sick and dying but we didn’t know why,” Wright says.

The response to the Facebook group was overwhelming. “At one point I had more than 500 people who emailed me privately telling me about their illnesses,” Wright says. Days later, the group learned that the creek that ran past many of their neighborhoods had been contaminated with uranium- processing waste. Digging further, they learned more about the haphazard dumping, the years of neglect, and about the health impacts of radioactive contamination.

“I think we didn’t sleep for two nights,” Wright says. “It became clear to us, from the science and medical standpoint, that what we were intuitively suspecting made sense. The puzzle fit together. We had a huge environmental issue beyond the worst imagined.”

By 2013, the number of cases being reported on the Facebook page was so overwhelming that the group created an online health survey for current and former residents of North St. Louis County, which would eventually lead to a well-organized and sustained community effort to learn the truth behind Coldwater Creek. (The Facebook group now has more than 13,000 members, many of whom report heartrending stories of pain and suffering endured either by them or their loved ones.)

“We had a lot of anecdotal evidence, but we knew there was no way we were going to get any help from anybody unless we started documenting things and getting some numbers and facts,” Wright says. A self-described “numbers person,” she was one of the key organizers of the survey along with her classmate Diane Schanzenbach, an economics and health researcher at Northwestern University……..

As they painstakingly mapped out the cases, Wright, Schanzenbach, and other members of the group were struck by the statistical improbability of what they were seeing. They found higher than average levels of leukemia, rare brain tumors, breast, and colon cancers — all known to be associated with nuclear radiation exposure according the Centers for Disease Control and the US Environmental Protection Agency. “We realized that we were seeing the effects of long-term exposure among people who grew up in North St. Louis County from the 1960s to the 1980s when the contamination was at its worst,” says Wright…….

Over the past four years, more than 100 current and former North St. Louis County residents have filed lawsuits against Mallinckrodt and the other companies involved in the manufacture and disposal of the nuclear waste, alleging these businesses’ reckless and negligent actions caused their cancers and other illnesses.

According to the latest data collected by the survey, as of 2015 there were 1,993 self-reported cancer cases, of which 45, including Patricia Barry’s, were cases of appendix cancer — a disease so rare that it’s usually seen in 1 of about 500,000 people a year in the United States.

In total, there were more than 2,725 reported cases of multi-generational illnesses, including rare cancers, thyroid problems, infertility, autoimmune diseases, and genetic mutations in children.

The group had from the start been pressing state and federal health authorities to conduct their own investigations to see if there’s a link between radiation and the illnesses. However, it was only after Wright went to them with her initial anecdotal list of health victims, and spoke to a local television station about her suspicions, that the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services responded to people’s concerns by conducting its own health study. The study’s finding, released in early 2013, concluded that increased cancer risk due to radiation exposure was “unlikely.” But once critics pointed out that the study didn’t account for people who grew up in North St. Louis County in the ’60s to ’70s but had moved away (the county’s population had seen a 75 percent turnover in the past 20 years or so) the department revised its study in September 2014 to factor that shift in. It ended up finding higher than normal rates of some cancers in the population, including leukemia, breast, and colon cancers — just as the citizen’s survey had. The new study also revealed higher rates of childhood brain cancer in some areas around Coldwater Creek………..

The Center for Disease Control (CDC)  health assessment, which kicked off in January, is expected to take 18 to 24 months to complete. In case the scientists confirm that the illnesses are linked to radiation exposure, they would have to do further studies to establish a cancer and disease cluster exists in the area. Implementation of any recommendations they make following that will likely take even longer…….

Seventy years of nuclear weapons research and production, and the related disposal of millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste, have left a legacy of contamination across the United States threatening both human health and the environment. As the US Government Accountability Office has reported, cleanup of this contamination, which has migrated from haphazard disposal sites into soil and groundwater, constitutes one of the world’s largest environmental cleanup programs. The Department of Energy has estimated that it may take nearly $300 billion and several decades to remediate these sites. For Oscko and Barry and thousands of those who are sick and dying because of the toxic legacy of our nation’s war effort, that is too long a wait.

“We all feel like we are living in a movie,” Oscko says. “That we are going to wake up at some point and it will all go away like a bad dream. But it’s all real. We are the casualties of the Second World War. This mess is because they wanted to win and went and built that bomb.”

Maureen Nandini Mitra provided additional reporting for this story. http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/35231-nuclear-waste-creates-casualties-of-war-in-missouri

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