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Missouri Community and Its Children Grappling With Exposure to Nuclear Waste

In the 2022 report, BCDC took 32 soil, dust, and plant samples throughout the school buildings and campus. Using x-ray to analyze the samples BCDC found more than 22 times more lead-210 than the estimated exposure levels for the average US elementary school in the Jana Elementary playground alone. There were also more than 12 times the lead-210 expected exposure in the topsoil of the basketball courts alone.

Radioactive  isotopes of polonium-210radium-266thorium-230, and other toxicants were also found in the library, kitchen, ventilation system, classroom surfaces, surface soil and even soil as far as six feet below the surface.

 https://blog.ucsusa.org/chanese-forte/missouri-community-and-its-children-grappling-with-exposure-to-nuclear-waste/ Chanese Forte, December 8, 2022

The families, students, and school officials in Florissant, Missouri have been living a modern nightmare for the past several weeks, learning that Jana Elementary school and the surrounding region has high levels of radiation, a problem caused decades ago by the production of nuclear weapons

Radiation exposure can damage the DNA in cells leading to a host of health problems including cancer and auto-immune disorders. What’s more troubling is that the Centers for Disease Control reports that children and young adults, especially girls and women, are more sensitive to the effects of radiation.

Jana Elementary school has 400 students and a predominantly (82.9%) Black student body. Unfortunately, the United States has a long history of environmental racism which results in harming Black, Indigenous and Brown communities much more in the process of creating and maintaining nuclear weapons.

When science cannot agree, the community suffers

The suburban school north of St. Louis, Missouri, was thought to be safe for students based on research completed in 2000 by the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).

Specifically, USACE has been in the Coldwater Creek region for the last 20 years attempting to remediate radioactive waste associated with the creek (which does not include Jana Elementary).

Toward the start of the 2022 semester, as part of an ongoing lawsuit in the region the Boston Chemical Data Corp (BCDC), an environmental consulting group, reported the elementary school as having radioactive waste levels far above the estimated national levels.

These radioactive waste exposures—like lead-210—are associated with decreased cognition, brain defects, thyroid disease, and cancer, and can accumulate in the body over time.

Following the BCDC report, all Jana Elementary students were sent home for the rest of the semester in hopes their homes were less toxic.

By the Thanksgiving holiday break, the USACE returned to test inside and on the playground of the school and found no radiation on the campus, news which many community members and organizers unsurprisingly expressed as suspicious.

The School Board then hired SCI Engineering, a private engineering firm, to sample Jana Elementary who came to a similar conclusion as USACE.

Now returning to classes from Thanksgiving break, many wary students joined classes at new schools in the area per the school board’s decision related to BCDC’s radiation exposure assessment. Many parents also expressed to National Public Radio they felt left out of discussions for decisions being made.  

How did radioactive waste end up in Florissant, MO?

The region near Jana Elementary was first contaminated by the US Department of Energy’s decision to make St. Louis one of the processing sites for uranium during the Manhattan Engineering District project. These nuclear weapons were built through World War II and originally stored at the St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

Unfortunately, the waste was later illegally dumped in 1973 at the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, MO, which lies about 10 miles Southwest of Jana Elementary. The West Lake Landfill is located near the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works Company which regularly floods, causing these harmful chemicals to be carried away by nearby water ways like Coldwater Creek.

Coldwater Creek runs for 19 miles throughout the area and flows directly into the Missouri River. Jana Elementary, just North of St. Louis, is bordered by the creek on two sides but has to date not been included in any clean-up efforts by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).

US Army Corps of Engineers initially didn’t sample inside or outside of Jana Elementary

Prior to the Boston Chem Data Corp 2022 report, the USACE did not take any samples within 300 feet of the school building in their 2017 assessment. According to BCDC’s report, this doesn’t follow US Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry (ATSDR) standards for radioactive sampling.

In fact, it ignores the conclusion ATSDR made that most exposures in the region will be indoors and just outdoors of buildings.

Indoor samples from creek-facing homes in the same neighborhood as Jana Elementary had similar radioactive waste both indoors and outdoors. ATSDR also noted in a 2019 report that radioactive wastes are routinely moved from Coldwater Creek into homes due to flooding. The region floods frequently which is only increasing due to climate change in the region.

New radioactive sampling methods used to understand student exposure

In the 2022 report, BCDC took 32 soil, dust, and plant samples throughout the school buildings and campus. Using x-ray to analyze the samples BCDC found more than 22 times more lead-210 than the estimated exposure levels for the average US elementary school in the Jana Elementary playground alone. There were also more than 12 times the lead-210 expected exposure in the topsoil of the basketball courts alone.

Radioactive  isotopes of polonium-210radium-266thorium-230, and other toxicants were also found in the library, kitchen, ventilation system, classroom surfaces, surface soil and even soil as far as six feet below the surface.

Marco Kaltofen, an environmental engineer who is leading the BCDC team, collected roughly 1,000 samples from across the region as a part of law suit efforts. There are several businesses and homes also indicated as exposed in the lawsuit as well.

Overall, Kaltofen suggests that BCDC’s unprecedented x-ray method better picks up the microscopic radioactive materials. However, he also asserts both studies are essentially saying the same thing, which is of course confusing for many community members.

Community organizers fight for testing and clean-up

Just Moms STL activist Dawn Chapman has worked tirelessly since 2014 to get the federal government to test for radioactive material in more regions where the creek floods.

The co-founder of Just Moms STL, Karen Nickel, also attended Jana Elementary School and has reported currently living with several autoimmune disorders. She uses her experience and love of the area to battle these exposure injustices.

In a 2017 Nation Public Radio report, Ms. Chapman says,

“They [The US Government] fought us for years. Finally, they [tested] parks that had flooded, and found [radioactive waste]. They started testing some backyards and found it. We pushed for Jana Elementary, because it is the closest school to the creek.”   Just Moms STL activist, Dawn Chapman

We reached out to Just Moms STL to understand what the next steps are. Just Moms STL Recommends:

  • The sites in St. Louis should be expeditiously cleaned up.

    Unfortunately, Jana Elementary School is not the only place to be concerned about near St. Louis. 
  • Since remediation of nuclear weapons waste in the area has already taken decades, many of these students will likely age out of Jana Elementary School before there is full remediation of radioactive waste in the St. Louis area.

While there is guidance on defining “safe” or acceptable radioactive exposure levels as it relates to human health, scientists also calculate “expected” levels from the Earth naturally (like radon in sediment).

Unacceptable levels are frequently defined as radiation exposure above natural levels by communities.

  • However, legally the Army Corps is allowed to leave some radioactive residue above naturally occurring levels, and Just Moms STL would like this to no longer be the case.  
  • Residents near nuclear weapon processing sites like the St. Louis area should be included in federal radiation compensation programs, such as the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). UCS also suggests consideration of St. Louis in the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Program Act (EEOICPA), and other forms of compensation as well.

Expanding radiation compensation programs is complicated because the list of communities that want to be included who currently qualify is long. Moreover, Just Moms STL says the RECA program needs to be expanded to include processing sites like St. Louis, which has previously only applied to nuclear testing exposure sites and uranium workers, or EEOICPA, which has only covered nuclear site workers, but not surrounding communities.

There are currently two bills being proposed to the House and Senate to extend and strengthen  RECA. Just Moms STL is working to get Missouri elected officials to help sponsor and carry RECA as well. And your representatives may also be interested in supporting adjustments to RECA or the EEOICPA.

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December 8, 2022 - Posted by | children, radiation, USA, wastes

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