Residents near Coldwater Creek press officials for answers on health risks

Jun 27, 2018
Originally published on June 29, 2018 5:24 am

Residents who live near Coldwater Creek on Wednesday used a meeting with federal officials to voice their worries about the longtime health risks of radioactive waste in the north St. Louis County waterway.

In a meeting at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Florissant, representatives of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry sought to inform residents about the agency's recent report on Coldwater Creek. It concluded that people with prolonged exposure to the creek who may have ingested radioactive soil through water, dust or mud were at a higher risk for bone, lung and other cancers.

Residents at Wednesday’s meeting wanted to know more about how the waste could affect their health and future. The authors of the assessment, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, could answer some questions and not others.

“Unfortunately our report can’t answer that type of question, of what caused a particular disease in someone,” environmental health specialist Erin Evans told a woman at the meeting who wanted to know if the creek contamination could have caused infertility issues. Several attendees had similar questions, and health officials gave many of them similar answers.

Starting in the 1940s, radioactive waste left over from the Manhattan Project was transported from the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in downtown St. Louis to north St. Louis County storage sites. Over time, that radioactive material leached into the Coldwater Creek creekbed. The Army Corps of Engineers has been cleaning up the contaminated soil, but residents who lived in the area for decades complain of developing diseases and cancers they suspect are related to the discarded uranium.

Other residents wanted answers on who was to blame for the waste runoff, or if state and federal governments have any plans to provide health care to people affected by exposure. However, officials from the agency were only able to answer questions based on its narrow assessment related to residents’ cancer risk.

The organization can act as an advisor only, officials told attendees.

However, the agency hopes its findings could be used by residents to drive policy or seek assistance, said Michelle Watters, medical officer for the agency.

“As far as where else we can go, I think it’s used to inform other policy makers. I think it provides the community groups [the opportunity] to say, ‘Look, we had this federal agency … [that] has made an assessment of our site, and this is their findings,'” she said. “I think it works to inform other people that this assessment has been made; they couldn’t independently had got that information and done it themselves.”

Watters said the agency would also take comments from the public into account when drafting the final version of the recently released report, which could include new recommendations based on the community’s concerns.

“We will address those questions, including some of them not in our agency’s mission and purview,” she said. “We may say that would be a good recommendation to make to some other group.”

The assessment, for example, not only outlined the potential health risks of creek exposure, but also recommended the Army Corps of Engineers increased testing of soil around the floodplain.

The lack of concrete action frustrated some area residents who attended the meeting.

Florissant resident M. Christine BredenKoetter said doctors in the area don’t know enough about the contamination.

“Most of the doctors in this city don’t live in Florissant, they practically don’t know where Florissant is,” she said. “Coldwater Creek means nothing to them. There needs to be a team of specialists here to deal with people in these neighborhoods”

She’d like to see the government send health professionals from the Department of Health and Human Services and Environmental Protection Agency to treat people who suspect exposure to the waste caused their cancer.

However, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry report can’t link individual cases of cancer to the creek, and health experts say it might never be possible to tell what cancers in the community were caused by the radiation.

The assessment recommends people who had contact with the contaminated creekbed always disclose their residential history to their doctors.

The next meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday at St. Mark’s. Residents’ comments will be included in a final report released at a later date.

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