Kirbi Pemberton pulled her 7-year-old daughter out of Rose Acres Elementary School in Maryland Heights this year over her concerns about potential health risks from the nearby radioactive West Lake Landfill. Another daughter, who goes to Pattonville High School, has missed several days of school this year with headaches, sore throat and other ailments.
Now a state health report has singled out the 63043 ZIP code, which includes both schools, for its high rate of brain and nervous system cancers among children 17 and younger. There were seven incidences of cancer compared to the three that would be expected in that age group between 1996 and 2011.
Pemberton’s oldest daughter Kirstee, who died in 2004 at age 12 of brain cancer that was diagnosed while she attended Rose Acres, is counted among the statistics.
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“Ten years later I get slapped in my face with this whole West Lake thing,” Pemberton said. “I feel like I am killing my children. That sweet, beautiful, blond child who would still be here if I just lived somewhere else.”
After the report, state health officials said they would bring Pattonville parents’ concerns to the attention of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a possible evaluation of health risks at the two schools. The schools are less than two miles from the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, where World War II-era nuclear waste was dumped in the 1970s and has yet to be cleaned up.
State officials also have asked for a federal health investigation into a potential link between the nuclear waste that contaminated Coldwater Creek in North County and a spike in leukemia cases in eight area ZIP codes, including 63043.
“The potential exposure and movement of contaminated materials is of grave concern to the state of Missouri,” the directors of the state natural resources and health departments wrote in a letter last week to the Pentagon asking for increased funding and an expedited schedule for cleanup efforts. “Coldwater Creek in north St. Louis County is an example of potentially contaminated land that is both a commonly used utility corridor and a play area for children.”
Soil testing conducted at Rose Acres and Pattonville High School over the summer did not turn up any radiation levels of concern. Rose Acres also tested negative for mold contamination in 2011 after a teacher complained of respiratory problems.
The elementary school was screened for air quality in 2005 over concerns about dust and odors blowing in from the Fred Weber (now Champ) landfill in Maryland Heights. Investigators then found concentrations of some cancer-causing chemicals in the air around the roof and playground that were consistent with what would be expected in a major metropolitan area. The source of the contaminants could not be determined.
Scientists are rarely able to prove a link between cancer rates and environmental hazards in a community, in part because of the complexity and prevalence of the disease. And the St. Louis area is known for its high rates of asthma, with many schools reporting 25 percent or more of students with the respiratory disease. The Environmental Protection Agency has repeatedly assured the community that the Bridgeton landfills pose no health threat to people living or working nearby.
Mike Fulton, Pattonville district superintendent, said while the schools are safe for students and staff, the district welcomes any investigations from state and federal health agencies.
“What we’re into is really complex,” he said. “It’s not just a Bridgeton issue or a Pattonville issue, it’s a regional problem that we have.”
Fulton regularly works with community members and political leaders regarding the situation at West Lake Landfill, where an underground fire at the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill has created foul odors in the community as well as raised fears about the radioactive waste. The superintendent met in August with parents including Pemberton, who has compiled an informal list of more than 50 students and staff members at Rose Acres Elementary who report ailments from asthma to cancer.
“They did show us a list,” Fulton said. “It’s not appropriate for us to get involved in other people’s health issues. We take student safety very seriously but we’re also very confident in sending our kids to Rose Acres or Pattonville High School or any other district school.”
Parents still question the Pattonville schools’ proximity to nuclear waste.
“We didn’t know about all this back then,” said Cindy Whitman, whose daughter Victoria was diagnosed with leukemia in 2005 while attending Rose Acres Elementary and has since recovered. “If the dump caused it, and I’m not saying it did or didn’t, but I’m upset because it could have prevented all the sickness that’s happening to our kids. They knew schools were around there.”
Families who live near the West Lake Landfill are often asked why they stay in the neighborhoods. Most cite similar economic and emotional reasons. Home values have plunged in the area, and many feel stuck. And despite the concerns about the landfills, they are connected to the schools and the neighborhood where their families have been for generations. Pemberton and others also say they face an ethical dilemma because they worry about other families moving in.
Christen Commuso has lived in Maryland Heights most of her life and is now being treated for thyroid cancer.
“This is where I grew up,” said Commuso, 33, who attended Rose Acres and Pattonville High School. “I wanted to raise my daughter there.”
Commuso said she keeps close watch on her daughter Izzabella for any signs of health problems. Many of the children are aware of their parents’ concerns. Earlier this year, Izzabella wrote a letter about the landfill to a state senator for a school assignment.
“I understand I am only 10 years old, but I worry for my family. My mother is a thyroid cancer survivor and she had a hysterectomy,” she wrote. “I don’t think I will ever know if the landfill was ever the cause of this, but it might have.”