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Residents say Coldwater Creek report lacks answers to cancer questions

Coldwater Creek in north St. Louis County has been linked to increased cancer risk, thanks to radioactive waste that contaminated the creek bed.
Sarah Fentem
St. Louis Public Radio
Coldwater Creek in north St. Louis County has been linked to increased cancer risk due to radioactive waste that contaminated the creek bed.

When a federal agency linked radioactive waste in Coldwater Creek to certain kinds of cancers, residents of north St. Louis County were pleased that the federal government had finally made a connection.

But the report didn't connect that increased risk of cancer to individual cancer cases. That has many wondering whether the radioactive waste actually caused their disease.

A Conservative Report

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s 126-page assessment said residents close to the creek had a higher risk of exposure to radioactive waste, and, thus, a higher risk of cancer.

It drew a link between prolonged, sustained contact — such as playing in the creek daily as a child — and an increased risk for certain cancer types.

The report is conservative, said Adetunji Toriola, a cancer epidemiologist at Washington University who has worked with St. Louis County to assess the Coldwater Creek risk.

“For kids who are likely to be at increased risk of lung cancer, they must have played in the creek for almost five days a week, and eight hours a day … before the risk of cancer can actually begin to be excess compared to those who are not exposed,” Toriola said.

For some near the creek, that lack of specificity can be frustrating.

Gerard Oscko and his wife Mary have lived about 400 meters away from the creek in Hazelwood for more than three decades. They became advocates for residents along the creek after doctors diagnosed Mary with terminal lung cancer four years ago.

“It would have been nice to have been a little more definitive and said, ‘Yes, definitely.’ I think there’s possibly more to come out of this yet,” Gerard Oscko said. “Hopefully it will as more studies happen.”

Mary Oscko recalls exercising in St. Cin Park next to the Coldwater Creek for years, sometimes coming home covered in dust blowing off the creek bed. She thinks the creek is what caused her cancer.

“If it was dry and dusty, it would get on us. It was on my skin; I would taste it in my mouth,” Oscko said. “I would just come in and grab a shower, and I could see dust and stuff washing off me.”

But she still doesn’t know how much exposure is enough to cause her health problems.

“How do we know if you just need one isotope? Is it five molecules? Lungs were never meant to have those things inhaled,” she said.

Gerard and Mary Oscko stand in front of their home in Hazelwood. Coldwater Creek, which has been linked to increased cancer risk, is in the background.
Credit Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio
Gerard and Mary Oscko stand in front of their home in Hazelwood. Coldwater Creek, which has been linked to increased cancer risk, can be seen in the background.

A large-scale study of individual cancer cases such as Mary Oscko’s might not be possible, said Toriola, the Wash U epidemiologist.

“This would involve interviewing people that had lived within the creek, following them up, looking at their histories and determining their cancer rates,” Toriola said. “That hasn’t been done, and I’m not sure if that’s going to be done. It is very intensive; it requires a lot of effort to put such studies together.”

Only Certain Cancers

The report concluded increased exposure to the creek could cause lung and bone cancer and leukemia, and, to a lesser extent, breast and skin cancer. However, residents who posted to the popular Facebook group Coldwater Creek - Just the Facts Please have spoke of developing several other types of cancer, such as appendix cancer and lymphoma.

An analysisfrom the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services in 2014 found residents in the area had statistically higher rates of leukemia and breast cancer. It also found that residents had higher rates of liver and kidney cancer, two types not mentioned in the federal report.

Toriola said more studies are needed in the area to associate the radioactive waste with risk for other diseases such as pneumonia and other types of cancers.

“This report assumed very high doses, extensive exposure,” Toriola said. “It will be great to know whether lower levels of exposure would also increase the risk of certain health diseases — not just cancer alone.”

Unknown Risks Downstream

Since the 1990s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been removing the radioactive waste from the former storage sites, the creek and its floodplain as part of the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program.

The program has finished removing the waste from the former storage sites and is now remediating the creek as it moves downstream, said Bruce Munholand, FUSRAP Program Manager for the St. Louis District Corps of Engineers.

“The good news is we are finding in the stretches of creek as we are sampling, as we are moving downstream, we are finding less and less contamination as we go,” Munholand said. The Corps of Engineers has removed 1.4 million cubic yards of contaminated soil, he said.

The report recommends the remedial-action program test residential areas and tributaries beyond the floodplain. But Munholand said the program is already tasked with doing that testing if it deems it necessary from the soil samples it collects.

“Should that sampling show that the contamination may extend beyond, we will continue to sample as far as necessary,” Munholand said.

Looking Forward

Mark Behlmann and his wife Cathy grew up playing in the creek in north St. Louis County. They were high school sweethearts and married each other when they were only 17.

After 34 years of marriage, Cathy was diagnosed with lung cancer. She was gone within eight months.

Behlmann said it’s impossible to tell if the creek caused her cancer.

“There is I believe, no person, no authority that can say that whatever is in the creek is what caused a single person’s cancer,” Behlmann said. “As human beings, we’re so exposed to things we never knew from decades before.” He recalls seeking the skull-and-crossbones symbol on fertilizer cans around his family’s farm as a child.

Instead, Behlman said, he wants to focus on the future. Continuing the clean-up effort is his top priority.

“All the death that’s been in my family and friends, that ain’t gonna change. It’s there, it’s done, it’s over,” he said. “What we have to do is, 'How do we make it better for these 5, 6-year-old kids?'”

What’s Next

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is visiting St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Florissant on Wednesday and Thursday to gather information about residents’ health problems and collect public comments on the public health report. The agency will be accepting comments through Aug. 31.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.