Atomic Bomb's Legacy Linked to Cancer Cluster in St. Louis
February 4, 2013 Leisa Zigman / KSDK I-Team News
Radioactive secrets beneath the waters of a north St. Louis County creek may be linked to a staggering number of cancers, illnesses and birth defects. In four square miles, there are three reported cases of conjoined twins and cancer rates that are statistically impossible. In the 1940s, thousands of tons of uranium were used to make the first atomic bombs, generating enormous amounts of radioactive waste that the government quietly ordered buried in uncovered barrels that are now leaking.
Cancer Cluster Map of St. Louis Leisa Zigman / KSDK I-Team Reporter
ST. LOUIS COUNTY (February 1, 2012) -- There are radioactive secrets beneath the banks and waters of a north St. Louis County creek that may be linked to a staggering number of cancers, illnesses and birth defects. In four square miles, there are three reported cases of conjoined twins and cancer rates that one data expert says is statistically impossible.
About two years ago, Janell Wright and several of her class of '88 McCluer North High School friends started wondering why so many of their peers were battling cancer.
"Where it got to be suspicious is when we had two friends diagnosed within a couple of months of each other with appendix cancer. And both people were told that is a one in a million cancer," said Wright.
Wright, an accountant and former auditor, started collecting data from her classmates. Soon, peers from neighboring schools reached out too.
"On Facebook, it just took off like wildfire. People started reporting their cancers and auto immune diseases," Wright said.
At first she found 30 cases. Within two months, she had data on 200 cases. Now, her maps have more than 700 cases in four square miles, including:
62 brain cancer cases
27 leukemia cases
26 lung cancer cases
24 multiple sclerosis cases
15 lymphoma cases
10 pancreatic cancer cases
3 conjoined twins
Wright became equally alarmed when data showed some of her classmates' children had serious medical problems too.
"The children usually came down with brain cancer in the first 15 years of life, in addition, leukemia. In my peer group's children, there were several children who had to have their thyroid removed before they were 10-years-old," she said.
Strange coincidence or was something else at play? Another classmate, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, is an economist at Northwestern University. She ran her own analysis and found the likelihood of so many cancers among her high school peers was .00000001. Schanzenbach called it a statistical improbability.
Connected by Facebook, high school, and illness, the classmates made a startling discovery. The creek where they played as children carried a secret.
In the 1940s, Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in downtown St. Louis purified thousands of tons of uranium to make the first atomic bombs. But the process also generated enormous amounts of radioactive waste. Sighting national security, the government quietly ordered the material moved to north St. Louis County in 1947.
Twenty-one acres of airport land became a dumping site where a toxic mixture of uranium, thorium, and radium sat uncovered or in barrels. In the 1960s, government documents noted contents from the rusting barrels were seeping into nearby Coldwater Creek. And by the 1990s, the government confirmed unsafe levels of radioactive materials in the water.
"You're having to grasp this idea that something was wrong. Nobody knew about it. Our parents didn't know, nobody knew," said Wright.
Wright and the 2,000 people now on the Facebook page Coldwater Creek Just the Facts Please wonder if they inhaled radioactive dust that blew in from the dump, or swallowed small amounts of toxic creek water.
Wright recently shared her data with the Army Corp of Engineers, which monitors the creek.
Members of the Facebook group want the CDC to investigate their data and determine if there is a cancer cluster. They are currently trying to build their case in hopes of getting to the truth.
Wright hopes she is wrong about the cancer cluster and link to Cold Water Creek. Her greatest fear is that she is right.
Based on the latest data, the Army Corp of Engineers reports there is no contamination threat to current homeowners. And monitoring of the creek continues.
Thirty people recently filed suit against Mallinckrodt and other companies. A spokesperson for Mallinckrodt, which is now owned by Covidian, said Mallinckrodt was not involved in the disposal or cleanup of the nuclear waste.
Lynn Phillips from Mallinckrodt's Media Relations issued the following statement:" "The St. Louis Airport Site was used for disposal of demolition debris from buildings decommissioned and demolished nearly 50 years ago by a third party demolition contractor under the oversight of the US government. Some of this debris was from buildings formerly used for uranium processing dating back to the 1940s at a Mallinckrodt site in St. Louis.
"The US Army Corps of Engineers in coordination with the Department of Energy is now responsible for the environmental remediation of the St. Louis Airport Site, which includes Coldwater Creek, under its Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program. This remediation is nearly complete. Mallinckrodt is not involved in the remediation activities that have been conducted at the St. Louis Airport Site."
ST. LOUIS COUNTY (February 2, 2013) -- The majority of St. Louisans who get their water from the Missouri River have most likely never heard of the West Lake Landfill, but they should. Since 1973, 8,000 tons of nuclear waste has been decaying at this landfill with no protective liner to separate it from ground water.
To understand the depths of concern, just look at the faces of those who wanted EPA officials to hear them.
"I am sicker than a dog," said one resident who lives near the landfill. Karen Nickel, who battles lupus, believes she too is sick because of the nuclear waste dumped at the West Lake Landfill nearly 40 year ago. "West Lake especially is a ticking time bomb right now," said Nickel.
The origins of the waste date back to the Manhattan Project and the creation of the first atomic weapon. Enormous amounts of uranium were purified at Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in downtown St. Louis. The process generated piles of nuclear waste that the government sent to disposal sites near the airport. In the 70s, about 8,000 tons of uranium, thorium, and radium were dumped at West Lake.
"This stuff has been sitting unprotected, not covered, no liner, and no barrier," said Nickel. West Lake sits on a flood plain. That is why so many people who live and work near the landfill say everyone in the region should be concerned.
Nickel explained, "300,000 people get their water from the intake at the Missouri River, eight miles from here and it flows in that direction. It's wet, high groundwater table, people nearby. It's really stupid. It's a stupid place for it," said Bob Criss, a geochemist at Washington University. He said few things are as absurd as burying this waste in a substandard landfill, in a floodplain, in an urban area.
In 2008, the EPA recommended putting a cap on the landfill and covering the nuclear waste with clay, rocks and dirt. The problem according to Criss is that this stuff gets more radioactive over time and stays toxic for billions of years. There was such public outrage in 2008, the EPA decided to conduct more studies.
The latest tests, made public two weeks ago, show 25 wells are contaminated with high levels of radium.
"People are not drinking the water that has the low levels of radium at this time. What about air, what about breathing it in? The radon comes out of the ground everywhere. It is naturally occurring. It does come out of the ground a little bit more from this landfill, but it dissipates pretty quickly," said Dan Gravatt, EPA project manager.
Those at the information meeting two weeks ago were not comforted by what the EPA had to say especially because those water samples were taken this summer, during the drought. And, the government paid the companies responsible for cleaning up the mess, to conduct the tests.
Nickel and others are frustrated because this has been an ongoing issue for decades. "I guess just me being a plain old citizen, if you know it's dangerous, chop chop get it done," she said.
The EPA plans on doing more tests before issuing a final decision. The I-Team asked how much money the EPA spent on testing, studies, and reports over the past two decades. A spokesperson explained there were four parties responsbile for the bulk of the expenses, including Bridgeton Landfill, LLC, Cotter Corporation, Rock Road Industries, Inc. and The Department of Energy. Since 1989 the EPA's cost has been $883,350.84.
ACTION: Two Facebook pages have been created by citizens dealing with nuclear waste; one for West Lake Landfill and the other for Cold Water Creek.
If you would like to contact the EPA or the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, visit their websites.
To contact Leisa Zigman or the I-Team, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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