Above Photo: Atomic bomb mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right). Residents in St Louis, Missouri, are still suffering from the affects of the radioactive waste left over by the bomb preparations today. From news.com.au.
IN 2011, residents across an American community in St Louis began to notice a chain of inexplicably high incidents of cancer and disease across its population.
For decades, both former and current residents from approximately 90 municipalities in the Missouri city were diagnosed with a long list of life-threatening illnesses, including leukaemia, lupus, brain tumours, appendix cancer, multiple sclerosis, birth defects and many more. People died. Babies died. And they’re still dying to this day, dubbed “the poison children of Coldwater Creek.”
But no one ever connected the dots as to what was really making these innocent people sick.
“You’ll never forget the moment they tell you, ‘We found lesions on your lung and your liver,’” Mary Oscko, who has stage 4 lung cancer, told CBS News.
“My husband and I had to sit down at night and discuss whether I want to be cremated or buried. I don’t want to be buried in North County, that’s the one thing I told him — I do not want to be buried where this soil is.”
In 1942, during the height of World War II, a corporation by the name of Mallinckrodt Chemical Works was hired by the US government to process uranium for the development of the world’s first nuclear weapons. The operation was dubbed ‘The Manhattan Project.’
Based in St Louis, it was here that the atomic bomb was born. That same bomb would be responsible for destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, at the end of the Second World War. Those two bombs killed at least 150,000 people by the end of that year (without taking into account long term radiation damage). It was powerful, deadly stuff.
A 1945 article in Life estimated that during the development of these atomic bombs, “probably no more than a few dozen men in the entire country knew the full meaning of the Manhattan Project, and perhaps only a thousand others even were aware that work on atoms was involved.”
By the mid 1940s, Mallinckrodt Chemical Works had run out of space to store the radioactive waste left behind, so in 1946 they began to ship the leftovers to a relatively underpopulated area north of St Louis, next to a creek by the name of Coldwater. It was here that approximately 250,000 barrels of radioactive material were dumped in shallow pits and exposed to the elements.
“It was in wartime, everything was secretive. In the ‘40s it’s not like we had social media, nobody knew,” former resident Kim Visintine told news.com.au.
“The uranium was owned by the US government and the Department of Energy — this is their mess.”
In some areas where waste spilled from the trucks, the Energy Department found radiation levels exceeded seven times the normal amount.
According to a 1990 article in the New York Times, the toxic waste was dumped secretly with the approval of the federal government.
“Reporters here asked questions about the trucks that were hauling dirt from the plant to land bordering the airport,” the article reads.
“The concerns disappeared after the Government and Mallinckrodt said the wastes were ‘not radioactive or otherwise dangerous’.”
But in the 1950s and ‘60s, a residential boom hit the area and the city began to expand, so a decision was made to reroute Coldwater Creek to make it more aesthetic.
Little did residents know at the time that by dredging and disturbing the creek, it gave the contaminated sediment a mode of transportation, and soon it began to spread throughout the area. Unknowingly, people began ingesting and eating the leftover carcinogens.
“The analogy we always use is like spreading icing on a birthday cake,” Ms Visintine explained.
“They spread the contamination across the entire region, it’s been this comedy of errors. Nobody knew, we didn’t know until we began investigating because we were all showing up with cancer. You can’t smell it, you can’t see it and you can’t taste it.
“If you have really low doses of radiation and you ingest it, over time it builds in your body. Once it gets in your body it never leaves, it’s like arsenic poisoning. It’s not one ingestion, it’s over and over, then it mutates and you end up with these cancers.
“We’re showing up with these really rare cancers, and really high rates at really young ages.”
In 2011, with the advent of Facebook, residents from the community began to reconnect and after sharing stories, they noticed a strange phenomena — unexplained high incidences of rare cancers.
“It was like this overwhelming response. When we started realising we were all sick we thought, ‘this is statistically not right, there’s an issue’,” said Ms Visintine.
As more and more residents shared their stories, a man by the name of Jeff Armstead decided to create a group — and map — to pinpoint what was going on.
“We hand wrote the first 750 cases of cancer but we had no idea how big this was. After that we started getting thousands of reports,” Ms Visintine explained.
Soon enough, one little Facebook page grew from simply getting back in touch, to the alarming realisation that more than 2700 residents reported rare incidents of illness. This was becoming a cancer cluster of epic proportions: 45 cases of appendix cancer, 184 cases of brain cancer, 315 cases of thyroid cancer, 448 cases of auto-immune disease, and so on.
“The situation here is one of the most graphic illustrations of the enduring costs paid by an American community for its participation in the cold war,” read the New York Times.
As a kid, Ms Visintine unknowingly ate vegetables full of radiation from her backyard vegetable garden. Kids would go down to the corner dairy mart and eat fresh ice cream from the huge dairy farms in the area, unaware the cows were eating from a contaminated field.
— Kim Visintine (@Visintinek) October 18, 2015
Kids would chew on honeysuckle torn from the backyard fence. They would play in the creek, completely oblivious they were bathing in poison. The neighbourhood park where they used to play as kids is now padlocked, as construction crews remove radioactive waste discovered beneath the topsoil. “What you see is an environmental health disaster unfolding slowly over decades,” County health director Dr. Faisal Kahn told CBS. “The rates of appendix cancer, for instance, which is relatively rare — we see about 800 cases across the nation per year. To find seven or eight cases in one zip code or one small geographic area is rather unusual.”
It gets worse. In June, the Army Corps of Engineers, tasked to clean up the mess in 1989, announced that it found more radioactive soil in various areas, including backyards and a public park. They’ve spent close to 17 years excavating and cleaning up the poisons of Coldwater Creek, but the problems still persist. “This is the oldest radioactive waste of the atomic age, and there still is no safe place to put the stuff,” said Kay Drey in 1990, a nuclear opponent who provided technical assistance to several suburban leaders. It comes as no surprise, considering they’re not even a third of the way from cleaning up. Ms Visintine said they’re expected to be cleaning until at least 2020. “Our main goal is to make sure we can protect human health and the environment,” Army Corps’ Mike Petersen told RT.com. “What we’re dealing with is generally a low level contamination but it does pose a long term threat and that’s what we stay focused on. “In the near term, it’s low risk. We’ve told them [residents] don’t dig, we’re going to come out and restore the ground with clean fill soil.”
But it’s little relief to Ms Visintine, who lost her son to a brain tumour. “When my son passed away he had respiratory failure as a result from brain cancer. We’re passing it on to our children. We have entire streets where the families have gotten sick.”
The US government has done little to study the health consequences borne out of this disaster.
Residents are hoping to access Downwinder status, a program set up by the US Department of Justice to compensate victims of World War II testing. Other cities in the United States, like Arizona, Nevada and Utah have received approval, but St Louis is not yet on the map.
“We are the birthplace of the atomic bomb, but we’re the forgotten site,” said Ms Visintine.
“The problem is the damage is done, I wish I was Dr Who and could go back and move in 1973, but it doesn’t help me now. Until the area is cleaned up I wouldn’t recommend moving there.
“Here we are in 2015 and we’re victims of World War II. We don’t want to be forgotten, we don’t want to be orphaned.”
In a statement to CBS, Mallinckrodt said: “The company worked under the direction of the U.S. government and at no time did Mallinckrodt own any uranium or its byproducts.”