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North County cancer cluster investigation

11:24 PM, Feb 21, 2013   |    comments
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By Leisa Zigman, I-Team Reporter

ST. LOUIS COUNTY (KSDK) - A staggering number of cancers, birth defects and illnesses first reported by the I-Team earlier this month has at least one local oncologist calling our findings, "an event."

The reported disease rate in just four square miles of north St. Louis County is considered by some experts to be statistically impossible, and yet, some of the most rare cancers and defects have been reported there.

Shari Riley has been a critical care nurse and nurse administrator for nearly three decades. She grew up near Coldwater Creek in Florissant from the late '60s through '80s. She believes her appendix cancer is linked to nuclear waste found in the creek and nearby radioactive dust piles that blew in over North County during that time.

"Poltergeist or Erin Brockovich? It's almost like they built this lovely city on bad ground and poisoned all the people," she said.

Riley found out about other cases of appendix cancer in North County, thanks to a website called Cold Water Creek - Just the Facts Please

"Appendix cancer is a very rare cancer. About 1000 cases are diagnosed each year in this country," explained Dr. Rama Suresh, oncologist at Washington University and Siteman Cancer Center.

One thousand cases per year nationwide and yet, in four square miles of North County, there are 13 reported cases.

"How many people grew up in Chesterfield during that same time and had appendix cancer? None," said Riley.

The Facebook page organizers are creating a data base of the types of cancers, birth defects and illnesses primarily in the Florissant and Hazelwood areas of North County.

Three weeks ago there were 700 reported cases. Now, there are more than 1,500. While the reporting is a grassroots unscientific effort, medical professionals, like Dr. Suresh are taking notice.

"It is concerning. It is an event because you have so many patients with cancer in the area and young people with cancer in that area, so it needs to be looked at closely," said Dr. Suresh.

Dr. Suresh is so concerned she is now asking her appendix cancer patients if they grew up in North County. And, she is telling them about the Cold Water Creek Facebook page. It's a page that is growing every day. When we first reported this story three weeks ago, there were 2,000 people on the Facebook page. Now, there are nearly 6,000.

They believe the high rates of disease in this small area is linked to the enrichment of uranium which took place at Mallinckrodt's downtown St. Louis plant during World War II and into the Cold War.

The process generated thousands of tons of radioactive waste that the government ordered shipped to two sites near Lambert airport in the '50s.

Government testing shows thorium and uranium seeped into cold water creek and radioactive particles blew from dust piles over part of North County.

"We all played in that creek. We all breathed that air and there are 13 people with a rare cancer that I couldn't find in three years time, one person in the area," said Riley.

Without the Coldwater Creek Facebook page, the high number of cancers, birth defects and other diseases in North County may have never come to light.

That is because when someone is diagnosed, they are asked, "Where do you live now? Doctors don't typically ask, "Where did you grow up?" Dr. Suresh is now asking that question and believes others should too.

Because of the growing concern, epidemiologists with the state health department are now examining cancer rates in the following zip codes: 63031, 63033, 63034, 63042, 63134, 63138.

Their findings are expected to be made public in March. However, those numbers reflect cancer rates of current residents, not those who grew up in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

The Army Corp of Engineers reports it has remediated most of the contaminated soil in the area and shipped it out of state. Testing of Coldwater Creek is ongoing.

To read the department's latest update click here.

KSDK

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