What Can Coldwater Creek Residents Do to Minimize the Radiation Exposure?

Elevated levels of radiation have been detected in soil and interior dust samples at an elementary school in Missouri. The radiation is thought to be related to the development of nuclear bombs in the 1940s-1950s. Are the levels found concerning? What can residents do to minimize exposure?

Key takeaways:

Parents are reacting with concern to learning details of an environmental sampling report conducted by Boston Chemical Data Corporation in August 2022. The report reveals elevated levels of radioactive contaminants at Jana Elementary School, in Hazelwood, Missouri. Radioactive isotopes lead-210, polonium-210, and radium-226 were found at levels well above the expected background.

According to the Boston Chemical Data Corp. report:

  • Lead-210 was 22 times higher than the background in the kindergarten play area.
  • Lead-210 was 12 times the expected background in the basketball courts.
  • Radium-266 was twice the background in the kindergarten play area.
  • Lead-210 and polonium-210 were found in indoor dust from the kitchen.
  • Thorium was also found at the school at higher levels than other known contaminated sites in the North St. Louis County area.

The school sits adjacent to Coldwater Creek, which was contaminated by residues from the manufacture of atomic weapons during World War II.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Army Corps”) has been leading the cleanup of Coldwater Creek for 20 years but flooding over the summer raised new concerns about contamination within the school and its surrounding fields and playgrounds.

The Boston Chemical Data Corp. report notes that the “…nature of the radioactive material at the school is consistent with the radioactive legacy uranium processing wastes notoriously found in the heavily contaminated Coldwater Creek in North St. Louis County, Missouri.”

The students will be in virtual school next week and then will attend new schools in January.

What prompted the testing at Jana Elementary?

The Army Corps has been working to clean up radiological waste storage sites near the St. Louis Airport since 1998. Community members asked for a public health assessment of the exposures before the cleanup effort and possible harmful health effects, and to recommend future actions. The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substance Disease Registry (ATSDR), part of the Department of Health and Human Services, released its findings in 2019.

The ATSDR concluded that radiological waste could have increased the cancer risk among people living or playing there in the 1960s to 1990s, namely bone or lung cancer, leukemia, and possibly skin or breast cancer. Those living or playing in these areas since the 2000s may be at increased risk of bone or lung cancers.

The ATSDR recommended that community members notify their doctor of potential exposures, and talk to their doctor if new or unusual symptoms arise.

The ATSDR can also arrange for consultation between a resident’s physician and an environmental health specialist if desired.

Other recommendations included an additional interior sampling of homes bordering Coldwater Creek and areas with possible soil or sediment deposits due to flooding. The state of Missouri was also asked to consider updating analyses on cancer epidemiology, such as incidence, mortality, and birth defects.

How can community members reduce exposure?

The ATSDR produced a community fact sheet in 2016 to provide community members with guidance on reducing exposure to contaminants while testing and cleanup continue. The community is asked to avoid contact with soil, sediment, and water near the creek, and in places where the creek may have deposited soil during flooding.

Other measures include not going into the creek, not drinking the water, or eating fish, animals, or plants from the creek. If going in the creek or digging in a yard near the creek is unavoidable, residents are advised to wear long sleeves, pants, gloves, and closed-toe shoes. These items should be washed separately after use.

After touching any creek water or soil, wash your hands and take a shower. Using mild soap is fine, and scrubbing is not necessary. Gardens should be in raised beds filled with clean (not creek) soil and watered with fresh (not creek) water. Root vegetables should be peeled before consumption. Shoes should be removed before entering the home, and pets should be free of soil or creek water before they enter the home.

Where did the nuclear waste come from?

Coldwater Creek contains uranium processing residues from waste that was not properly stored during the development of atomic weapons as part of the Manhattan project. Uranium and radium were extracted by the Mallinckrodt facility in downtown St. Louis, and radioactive byproducts from this process were improperly transported and stored near the airport, leading to the Coldwater Creek contamination.

The Army Corps has since been involved in the sampling and clean-up effort along the creek, and has been doing testing near the school, but not within 300 feet of the school.

The Boston Chemical Data Corp. testing report provides data on contamination within the school and grounds. The report also includes details of the Army Corps testing obtained by the Missouri Coalition for the Environment (MCE) via a Freedom of Information Act request.

Exposure pathways in the environment

Every day we are exposed to natural sources of ionizing radiation in the environment — these are the “background” levels of radiation noted in the reports. Our bodies are very good at repairing cell damage, but high doses can cause long-term health effects. Whether or not exposure is harmful depends on the dose, the type of radiation, whether the exposure is external or internal (through breathing, eating, or drinking contaminated substances), and how the body metabolizes the radionuclide.

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