ST. LOUIS COUNTY - North St. Louis County residents who fear decades of exposure to radioactive nuclear waste are weighing in after NewsChannel 5 broke the news that the St. Louis County Health Department has hired three epidemiologists to investigate.
For three years, thousands of people who grew up near Cold Water Creek have been saying the high rates of rare cancers among people in their high schools and neighborhoods were linked to the radioactive poisons that contaminated the creek.
Jenell Wright said what state investigators didn't realize at the time of their study last year was that the creek flooded dozens of times after the contamination, and that dangerous alpha particles went airborne causing cancers linked specifically to radiation exposure.
"Dr. [Delores] Gunn clearly understands there is a latency effect between the exposure people received growing up in the area in the '70s and '80s, and the presentation of disease several decades later that is typical to exposure of radio nuclides…the prior health study that the state did was not able to investigate that properly, so we are thrilled that she is taking this very seriously and wants to get to the bottom of what is happening to the communities health," said Wright.
Wright was one of the founders of the Facebook page whose members added to the data that convinced the health director there might be a significant health problem.
When NewsChannel 5 started covering Cold Water Creek and the possible link to cancer, there were 10 members on the Facebook page. Now, there are more than 10,000.
One of the rare cancers identified in north county is appendix cancer, which is linked to radiation exposure. Typically, there are 1,000 cases of appendix cancer reported a year in the United States. In North County, there are 40 reports on the Facebook page, but the data isn't scientific.
The county epidemiologists will take an approach based on standard and accepted protocols to determine whether there is a connection.
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 Cold Water Creek. By the 1990s, the government confirmed unsafe levels of radioactive materials in the water.
Dr. Gunn says the epidemiologists will team up with Washington University and state investigators on this project. While the state has investigated in the past and found no link to the creek and cancer rates, Dr. Gunn believes the project needs to cover decades dating back to the '70s and '80s.
The state's investigation only covered a short time frame.
The health department's investigation is significant because if cancer inks are found, then people who grew up in the area could start getting tested earlier for specific diseases.
For example, instead of the standard recommendation of getting a baseline colonoscopy at age 50, health officials could recommend testing at an earlier age. But again, that is only if a link is found and the investigation is just beginning.