Remembering Mary Oscko, an advocate for Coldwater Creek contamination victims
Mary Oscko was a lifelong St. Louisan. The mother of two spent the majority of her life in north St. Louis County. A graduate of Ritenour High School, she and her husband, Gerard Oscko, raised their family in Hazelwood. Mary Oscko just finished her nursing degree — a calling she answered later in life — when she and her family were blindsided by a terminal stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis.
Mary Oscko’s illness stopped her from practicing nursing, but her ability to care and advocate for others shifted as she learned more about what caused the cancer in the first place.
St. Louis’ role in the waste disposal from the Manhattan Project is well documented. The United Kingdom, Canada and the United States worked together to create nuclear weapons during World War II. The project disbanded in 1947, but the decision to spread the waste from the experimentation and manufacturing has had ripple effects across the country — including in the Osckos' lives — resulting in a pattern of cancer cases near disposal sites.
It all came to a head toward the end of 2013.
“I remember Thanksgiving of 2013. We had the whole family at our house for Thanksgiving dinner, and after everything was done and put away, she was laying in bed. [Her] pain was so intense, we had to take her to the ER,” Gerard Oscko told St. Louis on the Air. “Mary was a ‘never smoker.’ We got the diagnosis one week before she was supposed to walk to graduate for her nursing degree, so she knew what cancer and the type she had. She knew that was her death sentence.”
Mary Oscko became a regular at community meetings. As scientists were brought in to look for radioactivity in and around north St. Louis County, she and others fought for St. Cin Park’s closure while the grounds were being cleared of “low-dose” radioactive soil. One of the first Coldwater Creek contamination meetings Mary Oscko and Gerard Oscko attended happened not far from the Osckos’ home.
“Mary always had the gift to speak, and she speaks very well and broadly,” said Gerard Oscko. “She speaks her convictions.”
Fellow activist Christen Commuso recalled meeting Mary Oscko at that same community meeting, sparking a friendship that inspired Commuso in multiple ways. “She was so descriptive, telling her story about taking that journey through ‘the great white tube,’” Commuso said. “I had also just recently been diagnosed with cancer … and when I heard her speak, she moved me to further action.”
Mary died Feb. 20 at 63 years old — much too soon for her loved ones. Gerard Oscko has found some solace in his wife’s fight to raise awareness about toxic carcinogens in north St. Louis County. “When there was something on her mind and on her heart, she loved to speak about it. That’s going to be the story [that] her grandkids will hear,” he said.
To hear more about Mary Oscko’s advocacy and influence as well as current efforts to support those exposed to toxins from the Manhattan Project, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to email@example.com.