FLORISSANT, Mo. - Florissant natives who grew up near Cold Water Creek released alarming data Wednesday about rare cancers and other diseases possibly linked to radiation exposure.
What is so extraordinary about this data is that ordinary citizens accomplished what state and federal health investigators wouldn't agree to survey.
First, the background; In the 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.
Citing 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. By the 1990s, the government confirmed unsafe levels of radioactive materials in the water.
Fast forward to 2011 when a group of McCluer North Class of '88 high school friends realized an extraordinary number of their friends dying from rare forms of cancer. Angela Helbling, a Florissant native, built and administers the Coldwater Creek-Just the Facts Facebook page.
"I found the Facebook group shortly after I was battling my own illness. I had a tumor in my face. It's a salivary gland tumor that they only see in Hiroshima bomb victim survivors," said Helbling.
No one could explain how she developed this tumor. But on her Facebook page a handful of people started describing their own cancers linked to radiation exposure.
Three years ago there were ten members on the page. Now, there are nearly 9,000.
Over the past three years, the group collected and analyzed data submitted by 3,300 people through the Facebook page. After validating addresses, the group reported 202 thyroid cases and 113 brain tumors.
Kim Thone Visintine, also a Florissant native, is an engineer who volunteered her time to work on the data.
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"This very rare tumor usually only shows up in 60-year-old men and is showing up in children and babies and 30-year-old females," Visintine explained.
Visintine lost her son, Zach, to the same brain tumor. He lived just six years.
The most alarming data is the number of cases of appendix cancer. Typically there are only 1,000 cases reported each year in the United States. In north St. Louis County alone, there are 39 cases.
Shari Riley is one of those cases. She grew up near Cold Water Creek in Florissant from the late '60s through the '80s.
"Poltergeist or Erin Brockovich? It's almost like they built this lovely city on bad ground and poisoned all the people," she said.
While this is a grass roots unscientific collection of data, medical professional like Dr. Rama Suresh are taking notice.
"It is an event . It needs to be closely looked at," said Dr. Suresh.
Another organizer of the Facebook page is Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, a Florissant native who holds a Ph.D in economics from Princeton and teaches statistics at Northwestern University.
"When people have a persistent headache or pain they need to tell their doctors whether they grew up in North County and that they may have been exposed to ionized radiation," said Schanzenbach.