Cold War Nuclear Weapons Put St. Louis Community At Risk—in 2023

April 17, 2023 | 4:19 pm
Chanese A. Forté

Current-day residents near St. Louis, Missouri, are living with chronic health conditions and an increased cancer burden due to contamination from uranium mining and processes used in the production of nuclear weapons at the start of the atomic age.

The 19-mile stretch of Coldwater Creek includes areas surrounding the St. Louis Lambert International Airport to the Missouri River. The contamination in the region is from World War II-era processing of uranium by Mallinckrodt Chemical Company upstream, and later by the improper storage of nuclear waste at the airport (a decision made by the Department of Energy).

Impacted community members have fought for decades to receive compensation for the health effects and environmental waste cleanup. 

Our illnesses are from CHRONIC, low-level exposure from ionizing radiation over YEARS, through ingestion and inhalation.

Dr. Kim Visintine

Recently, federal investigators announced they want to test for nuclear waste at Fort Belle Fontaine Park which is owned by St. Louis County and about 17 miles from Jana Elementary in Florissant. The Jana Elementary community also has concerns surrounding radiation exposure related to the Manhattan Project, and were recently making headlines for seeking answers and getting conflicting exposure reports.

Unfortunately, the residents of the St. Louis metro area are not alone in their concerns. Impacted communities and nuclear weapons policy experts know that US government-led testing and production of nuclear weapons in other regions of the United States also affected others, yet those living with the health and environmental impacts are being denied the opportunity to even apply for compensation. 

Specifically, much of the funding within the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) is for people who lived down-wind of nuclear explosive testing areas, veterans involved in such testing, and uranium workers who developed disease associated with their occupational exposure. The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA) compensates nuclear weapons complex workers. 

But these programs have serious limitations and leave out people who were potentially exposed. For the myriad regions where nuclear weapons materials were created, shipped, or stored—that like the St. Louis metro area likely are still contaminated—the residents remain without compensation for the harm done. 

I was fortunate to chat with Dr. Kim Visintine, a member of Coldwater Creek: Just the Facts Please, to ask her about the work she and others are doing on the ground.  

Dr. Visintine has a background in engineering and physics, a doctorate in nursing, and was successful in getting the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to study the area around the creek, which confirmed the link between contamination and higher rates of illnesses. 

Our guiding light is science first at Coldwater Creek: Just the Facts Please. But personally, we’ve all been exposed and many of us didn’t even know we were exposed. 

Dr. Kim Visintine

CF: What were the circumstances under which you gathered this group of local organizers and citizen scientists? 

KV: In 2011, when we started our Facebook group, we were just a bunch of people like anyone else that had reconnected with old classmates and childhood friends on Facebook. 

One day a friend I grew up with in the area took out a yearbook from grade school and started checking off everybody in her class that was sick with or died from cancer. And after crossing off every single person in her class she knew something wasn’t right, so we all got together and started a health survey.

Our guiding light is science first at Coldwater Creek: Just the Facts Please. But personally, we’ve all been exposed and many of us didn’t even know we were exposed. 

In fact, my son passed away when he was six years old from glioblastoma, but I am not the only person from the area with immediate family members who have passed away or had cancer. Overall, our contaminants of concern in primary volume are uraniumthorium, and radium

From our studies, we have seen a trend for illnesses to have been the highest prior to the initiation of cleanup by Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP) in the 1990s. Since cleanup was initiated, the illness trend has decreased (as expected). 

Today, for many reasons, the current population is not receiving the same level of exposure as children in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Which is very good news because contamination has been pushed below the surface and now lies six inches to 20 feet below ground, eliminating chronic ingestion and inhalation.

CF: How did ‘just a group of neighborhood kids who reconnected on Facebook in 2011’ get the attention of governing bodies to expand testing and cleanup in the St. Louis area? 

KV: After completing our survey, we started our cancer maps and went to the Army Corps of Engineers. 

As private citizens, we approached the Army Corps of Engineers FUSRAP program and were able to request testing of the creek, which resulted in additional cleanup (to date, more than $700 million has been spent on cleanup efforts). 

So many people don’t realize this and say the Army Corps of Engineers is not testing or doing their job, and that is not the truth that we lived as a group. 

Coldwater Creek: Just The Facts Please engaged the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, and consulted on a health study which confirmed higher than average cancers in the area, in 2014. At the request of Just The Facts Please, the US Department of Natural Resources wrote a letter [to the Army] urging expedited cleanup of the area for risk of further exposure. 

We also worked with the St. Louis County Department of Health, who created an article for physicians to alert them of our area’s potential exposure. 

We started working with the Center for Disease Control’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (CDC’s ATSDR) to develop a public health assessment, which resulted in the federal government acknowledging a link between our exposure to radiological contaminants and our illnesses.

CF: What is the primary goal for Coldwater Creek: Just The Facts Please?  

KV:  Our goal, as a group, has always been about furthering cleanup of the area, and health education. We have accomplished a lot, but there is so much more that we would like to do for our community. 

We would like to see our area included in a federal program for atomic weapons waste communities who were involved in the Manhattan Engineering Project. 

Did you know that there are 22 other sites, just like ours? 

This federal program (RECA) creates an opportunity for community members to seek restitution.

If we can gain inclusion in RECA, then our community will also be eligible for federal grants and funds for medical screening clinics and health education.

CF: Where is the RECA Expansion and Renewal bill now and what can inclusion in this bill mean for people residing in the St. Louis area?  

KV:  Our illnesses are from CHRONIC, low-level exposure from ionizing radiation over YEARS, through ingestion and inhalation. For most of these exposures, disease does not present until DECADES after CHRONIC exposure.

Ultimately, we cannot change our exposure, but through education and screening, we can catch illnesses early and change terminal diagnosis into medical treatment opportunities and give folks a fighting chance to beat their cancers!

Just last month, we testified at a hearing in front of the Missouri House of Representatives about our illnesses from WWII “friendly fire”. Rep. Tricia Byrnes (R) presented (HCR21) legislation to the (Missouri) House of Representatives a month ago and it passed unanimously in the house yesterday (April 5th) so now it goes to the Senate. 

Next, the idea is to pursue restitution with the US Department of Energy and we’re hoping that what that restitution looks like is a different amendment or article in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act for downstream communities like ours.