No cancer cluster near nuclear waste dump

Published: Mar. 20, 2013 at 7:33 PM CDT|Updated: Mar. 20, 2013 at 7:59 PM CDT
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A Missouri agency's study released Wednesday found no evidence of a cancer cluster in an area of St. Louis County where nuclear waste was produced and discarded during the Cold War, a finding quickly dismissed by many residents of the area.

The report from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services found higher rates of some cancer but determined lifestyle factors like smoking and unhealthy eating habits are likely to blame.

Mallinckrodt Inc. produced nuclear waste in north St. Louis County in the years after World War II. Coldwater Creek that runs from near Lambert Airport through Florissant was contaminated with uranium, thorium and radium. Many people who lived in the area in years past have reported unusual cancers, prompting the state investigation that began about a year ago.

The health department study found that leukemia rates were not significantly higher than expected in the region, and incidence of thyroid cancer was actually lower than expected. Research has linked leukemia and thyroid cancers to environmental sources of radiation.

The study also looked at 25 other types of cancer. While some were "significantly" higher than expected, the study cited factors other than radiation exposure as likely causes: smoking, physical inactivity, unhealthy diets and diabetes.

Shari Riley, now 50, grew up in Florissant and called the study "irrelevant, skewed. It's almost an insult to people's intelligence."

The study used data from 1996 to 2004, after most of the radiation contamination had been cleaned up. Many of the people who were part of the study didn't live there at the time of the radiation contamination, Riley said, while many who lived and played near contamination sites have since moved away.

Riley is among several people involved in a Facebook group called "Coldwater Creek - Just the facts please," with more than 7,000 members. The group has cited thousands of cancers among current and former residents, including many rare cancers and other diseases.

Riley recalled playing in Coldwater Creek as a child, finding crawfish "that were clear - you could see through them. Some had two heads."

In 2010, Riley was diagnosed with stage 4 appendix cancer. She has since been given a clean bill of health, but said she knew of at least two dozen other appendix cancer cases from the area. Appendix cancer is rare, with fewer than 1,000 new cases in the U.S. each year.

Health department spokeswoman Gena Terlizzi said any study has limitations. She said a study focused on residents of the area prior to cleanup would have to include not only those who developed cancer but those who were cancer-free.

"We are sensitive to those concerns, and we did use the best practices we have available to gather this data and analyze cancer incidence in that area," Terlizzi said.

The state report recommended increased cancer prevention and health promotion efforts because of the region's higher-than-expected rates of breast, colon, prostate and kidney cancer.

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