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Rates Of Radiation-Related Cancers Not Higher Near Coldwater Creek, Study Says

Residents of the area around Coldwater Creek in north St. Louis County do not have higher rates of cancers caused by exposure to radiation. That's the finding of a study released today by the Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services.

State scientists looked at the incidence of 27 types of cancer in five zip codes near the creek for the period from 1996 to 2004.

They found that rates of leukemia and thyroid cancer, which have been linked to radiation exposure, were no higher than in the rest of the state.

Health department spokesperson Gena Terlizzi says rates of breast, colon, prostate, and kidney cancer were higher than expected. But she says that's likely due to other kinds of risk factors. “Factors like smoking, physical inactivity, unhealthy diets, or diabetes,” Terlizzi says. “And some of those risk factors may help explain some of these findings.”

Terlizzi says her agency plans to work with the St. Louis County Department of Health to increase cancer prevention efforts.

Coldwater Creek was contaminated with radioactive waste dumped in the area after World War II. Current and former residents believe their exposure to that waste has caused thousands of cases of cancer and other diseases.

Jenell Wright lived in Florissant near Coldwater Creek from 1970 to 1997. She doesn't have cancer, but says many of her childhood friends and classmates do.

Wright says the health department study focused on the wrong people, at the wrong time.

"The people who grew up in those zip codes no longer live there, and their cancer is not being recorded in those zip codes in the years that they were analyzing, because the people live elsewhere," Wright says. But Gena Terlizzi says it would be impossible track all former residents.

"If we began to incorporate anyone who moved away with cancer, it would also require incorporating anyone who had ever lived in that area and moved away and did not develop cancer,” Terlizzi says. “Because if we only pulled back in the individuals who later developed cancer, those numbers would be skewed.”

Jenell Wright says the study also left out many people who were diagnosed with cancer more recently and people who lived in other north St. Louis County neighborhoods that could have been contaminated by the radioactive waste.

A Facebook group formed to look into Coldwater Creek cancer rates now has more than 7,000 members. Wright says current and former residents have reported thousands of cases of cancer and other diseases on the site.

Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience