FLORISSANT, Mo. — The years Kim Visintine had with her son Zach just weren’t enough.
“We were blessed with him for six years of life," said Visintine, a former North County resident.
Zach died from a rare brain tumor.
“That is typically found in folks who've been exposed to radiation or in older men over the age of 60," said Visintine.
His life was filled with hospital stays and medical treatments. She believes a secret threat she learned about years later is to blame. She said it’s hidden in a creek near her childhood home.
“I grew up in Florissant," she said.
“We spent a lot of our time running around on the creek banks, playing in the woods," she said.
Visintine, who now lives just north of Detroit, is talking about Coldwater Creek. It’s a 19-mile stream running through North County. It's the same stream that runs near Jana Elementary School, where an independent study found high levels of radioactive material.
The study by the Boston Chemical Data Corporation was a result of a class action lawsuit. It blames “big companies” that have made money from “handling and storing” nuclear waste during World War II. But testing results released just Wednesday by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found “no areas of concern” at the elementary school. “From a radiological standpoint, the school is safe,” a spokesperson said in an email. Still, many are still worried.
“Am I angry with what's happened? Obviously," said Visintine.
She’s been speaking out for 11 years.
“We started noticing that all of our friends had really rare cancers," she said.
5 On Your Side has covered her concerns over the past decade. She’s one of the creators behind this Facebook group, called “Coldwater Creek -- Just the Facts Please.” Twenty-two thousand members share their stories.
It’s those stories that led to this report in 2014 from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. It showed people in eight zip codes around the creek had “significantly higher” cancer rates linked to radiation.
Five years later, this report from the CDC estimated that long-term exposure to Coldwater Creek “could have increased the risk of developing lung cancer, bone cancer, or leukemia.”
“Ultimately, the government is responsible for this waste because they are the ones that created it," said Visintine. “Was it done maliciously? No. It's more gross negligence... Falls on the Department of Energy.”
So we reached out to them.
In an email, Chad Smith, a spokesperson with the U.S. Department of Energy, told the I-Team: "We won't have any comment…"
So we kept asking questions. We found this map from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Environmental experts say the dots around St. Louis’ airport and everywhere from Bridgeton to Black Jack show polluting industries. North County has long been a hotspot.
People who live near Coldwater Creek tell us they’re not getting the help needed to completely clean up the toxic mess. It's a mess that started in the 1940s, long before many people moved in.
“It's just a tragedy," said Charles Miller, policy manager with the Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper.
The Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper is a nonprofit that advocates for clean water. Miller shows us the results of a new survey from his organization, which involved sampling 16 streams across the country. It shows Coldwater Creek has the highest concentration of dangerous chemicals known as PFAS or “forever chemicals” in the Midwest, among the samples studied.
“And they've been shown to have some negative health impacts on human beings like cancer, kidney issues, reproductive system issues," said Miller. The water studied was not drinking water, but surface water or water that’s in places like streams and creeks.
North St. Louis County
“Would you call this an environmental crisis?” asked Vasan.
“I would say that North County is definitely in an environmental crisis," he said. “We didn't expect that it would be off the charts kind of like it is now.”
“Is enough being done to fix this issue right now?” asked Vasan.
“We'd like to see folks move faster," said Miller.
Visintine said she’s been saying the same thing for too long. She wants North County residents included in the U.S. Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, a federal program for people who’ve been impacted by radiation.
“So what we'd like to do is call on our elected officials," she said.
North County residents, she said, shouldn’t have to suffer forever.
Got a tip or a concern? Call or text KSDK's senior investigative reporter Paula Vasan at 314-250-9560. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more about the recent concerns near Coldwater Creek here: KSDK.com/Radioactive