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Coldwater Creek cancer locations map

The St. Louis County health department plans to hire three researchers to study chronic disease and cancer rates among residents with a focus on the area surrounding Coldwater Creek, which was contaminated decades ago with nuclear waste.

Results from a survey organized by residents and released earlier this year showed 1,242 cancers among 3,300 people who had lived near the north St. Louis County creek, which runs from St. Ann to the Missouri River. The residents started the survey after noticing a spike in diseases among their classmates who graduated in the late 1980s and early 1990s from McCluer North High School in Florissant.

The residents’ work caught the attention of federal, state and local health officials, who attended community meetings on the topic.

“We need to be able to validate the information, to figure out if it is real and scientifically based, and whether we can get them more information and support,” said Dr. Dolores Gunn, the health department’s director.

A 2013 Missouri health department study found no higher risk of cancer for people living in ZIP codes surrounding the creek. The study’s authors acknowledged its limitations because their data included residents of the area from only 1996 to 2004.

“The Coldwater Creek contamination really had occurred decades before,” Gunn said. “The people who grew up there have migrated to other communities.”

One goal of the new project is to come up with a scientific process for evaluating the health of former residents. The researchers will first try to locate the people and take detailed health histories. They will also study cancer registries, medical records and death certificates, Gunn said.

They face a challenge, as environmental cancer clusters are difficult to prove because of the complexity of the disease and the scope of the project. Current and former residents say they are most concerned with the number of rare cancers they’ve found and the relatively young ages.

The survey turned up about 40 cases of appendix cancer, which is diagnosed in fewer than 1 in 314,000 Americans each year. Dr. Graham Colditz, deputy director of the Institute for Public Health at Washington University, has said the number of appendix cancers in North County is larger than expected for the population.

The county health department has already hired the research team’s manager and will soon post job openings for two more epidemiologists. The county approved $268,224 a year for the full-time employees’ salaries and expenses. The team plans to start this fall looking for unusual patterns in diseases such as obesity and diabetes across the county, as well as any environmental risks linked to Coldwater Creek.

The creek was contaminated with uranium, thorium and radium starting in the 1940s after the dumping of nuclear waste from atomic bomb production in downtown St. Louis. Cleanup of the creek near the airport and the adjacent nuclear waste sites is overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers, which has nearly completed the work. The Corps is now studying soil and water samples from the creek north of I-270 for potential contamination.

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Blythe Bernhard is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.