‘World War II hasn’t stopped’: St. Louis residents want relief for radiation sickness

Nuclear waste from development of the atomic bomb has contaminated several sites in the St. Louis area. Proposed legislation would force an investigation into whether residents could qualify for compensation

By: - March 8, 2023 11:30 am

State Rep. Richard West, R-Wentzville, speaks during Missouri House debate on March 1, 2023. West and Rep. Tricia Byrnes, R-Wentzville, are sponsoring resolutions meant to bring relief to victims of radiation exposure in St. Louis stemming from the 1940s Manhattan Project (Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications)..

Kim Visintine said her son had his first chemotherapy treatment at three weeks old. A year later, Visintine and her husband had $100,000 in medical debt. 

Six years later, their son died.

But it wasn’t until she found hometown friends on Facebook that Visintine connected her son’s cancer – a rare form of brain tumor called a glioblastoma multiforme — to Coldwater Creek, which runs through north St. Louis County. 

Visintine and other current and former residents started to realize just how many of their loved ones were sick and how many cases of rare cancers could be connected back to the area.

The likely culprit, they came to believe, was radioactive waste left over from the Manhattan Project. 

“We are the victims of friendly fire from World War II,” Visintine told a Missouri House committee Tuesday evening. 

Visitine and other current and former St. Louis area residents packed a Missouri Capitol committee room to implore lawmakers to pass legislation that would force an investigation into whether residents could qualify for compensation for their radiation exposure. The bill would also urge Missouri’s Congressional delegation to expand an existing program that provides relief to victims.

“My own father was a Pearl Harbor survivor,” Visintine said. “I am very pro-armed services, but it’s not fair for the children to be affected afterward.”

St. Louis played a key role in development of the atomic bomb in the 1940s. Downtown workers processed uranium that was used in the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction in Chicago in 1942, a key breakthrough during the Manhattan Project. 

As a result, radioactive waste contaminated Coldwater Creek. 

The contamination at Coldwater Creek, which still hasn’t been completely remediated, may have resulted in an increased risk of rare cancers, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concluded in 2019

Coldwater Creek is scheduled to be fully remediated by 2036, more than 90 years after the U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

In the 1970s, leftover radioactive material was dumped at the nearby Westlake landfill. A fire in an adjacent portion of the landfill has been burning for nearly a decade, threatening the thousands of tons of waste. 

Cleanup at Westlake has yet to begin. 

Relief for St. Louis 

State Reps. Tricia Byrnes and Richard West, both Wentzville Republicans, are sponsoring the legislation meant to bring compensation and health monitoring to St. Louis area residents exposed to waste from the bomb. 

Both Byrnes and West have relatives they believe were sickened by the contamination. 

Byrnes’ son was diagnosed with a thymoma in 2016. She said an expert told her that form of cancer was typically caused by radiation or chemotherapy meant to treat a different primary cancer. 

But she said when she reached out for help, she was told she needed to provide a study linking her son’s cancer to the radiation exposure. 

“How dare they ask a mother of a child where her medical study is to prove the atomic bomb kills people,” she said. 

Byrnes said the Missouri residents who suffered exposures should get health screenings and medical care. 

“I’m here to tell you guys World War II hasn’t stopped with victims, and a lot of them are here behind me tonight,” she said. 

West’s mother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Despite having insurance, she had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for medications, he said. 

Shortly after she died, West said he started noticing commercials urging anyone who lived around Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to speak to a lawyer about whether they might qualify to join class action lawsuits over contamination of water there. 

He said one of the major cancers mentioned in the commercial was his mother’s cancer: multiple myeloma. 

“A year later, I am knee-deep in one of the largest atrocities laid on the American people by their government,” West said. 

Over the course of four hours, members of the committee heard testimony from more than 20 St. Louis residents, experts and lawmakers urging them to do something for the victims. 

Danielle Spradley, outreach director for Congresswoman Cori Bush, D-Missouri, delivered testimony for Bush, who was in Washington for U.S. House of Representatives votes. 

Bush and U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers earlier this year to test for radioactive contamination in the Hazelwood School district. 

“The federal government has failed to warn Missourians of not only the presence of this waste,” she said, “but of its dangers.”

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on energy, the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she previously covered City Hall for The Kansas City Star, as well as state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City.