by Lindsay Clein
ST. LOUIS, Mo. — It’s been nearly 71 years since atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but residents in one St. Louis suburb are still feeling the impacts of the radioactive waste left behind.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are,” said Stage 4 Lung Cancer Patient and St. Louis Resident Mary Oscko. “When you’re told you’re likely going to die, possibly shortly, its a shock.”
Mary Oscko refuses to join the silence.
“The worst news you can get is you have cancer,” said Oscko. “I’m going to keep speaking. This will be my mission until I die.”
Mary has lived in Hazelwood for 30 years.
“They won’t silence me,” she said. “Nobody will silence me– because it’s in the soil.”
“Up until recently, it has been St. Louis’s dirty little secret,” said Lupus Patient and St. Louis Resident Karen Nickel.
Karen has lupus.
“It’s often debilitating,” she said.
But being sick isn’t the only thing Karen and Mary have in common. Both women also grew up in North St. Louis County along Coldwater Creek.
“15 people on my street alone have passed away of some form of cancer,” said Nickel.
“Non-smoking people like myself– diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer,” said Oscko. “Something is wrong.”
To this day, clean-up crews continue to remove radioactive waste found beneath the topsoil. It’s the same radioactive waste from America’s Nuclear Weapons Program back in the 1940s.
“I had no idea living in three different houses in the northwest part of St. Louis County, that I was being exposed over my whole life– possibly to these agents,” said Oscko.
Mallinckrodt Chemical Company in St. Louis was hired by the federal government to process uranium, the same product used to make the bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“Those bombs were dropped in the 1940s,” said Oscko. “And this is 2016 — and we are still paying the price. This weaves through our communities and where we raised our children.”
Over several years, barrels upon barrels of nuclear waste contaminated the soil along Coldwater Creek.
“The creek would come out of its beds and flood homes and parks and backyards,” said Nickel. “And all of this unbeknownst to me, was bringing up contaminated, radioactive waste.”
“We were walking through it and bringing it up to the back doors of our homes,” said Oscko. “We had it on our shoes. For those of us who lived here day in and day out, we were exposed to this very slowly over a long period of time. What has this done to us? We want answers to this.”
Mary now lives right next to St. Cin Park.
“You’ll have people who don’t want to visit you,” she said. “You live next to Coldwater Creek.”
Outside her bedroom window, a constant reminder of the reality she’s facing. The nightmare she wishes she could wake from.
“This six acre park where we thought would be a good place to raise our daughter became an area of great concern,” Oscko said.
A park that once attracted laughter and action, now temporarily silenced by clean-up crews and barriers.
“My concern as a resident next to the park is, will they get every bit of this? I don’t know how I will ever get enough assurance for me to safely use my park again,” Oscko said.
A group of neighbors who grew up along Coldwater Creek connected the dots while planning a high school reunion. A map they put together shows more than 2,700 instances of cancers, auto-immune disorders and brain and thyroid tumors.
“The rates of appendix cancer, which is relatively rare– we see about 800 cases across the nation per year,” said Dr. Faisal Khan. “So to find seven to eight cases in one zip code or one geographic area is rather unusual.”
“It’s a cancer cluster,” said State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City.
“And I look at these maps and those dots and to other people, they may be dots or statistics,” said Nickel. “But they are real people, real faces go with those dots– and there are a lot of faces.”
A group of people in North St. Louis County have made it their mission to try to expedite the clean-up process.
“Because it is moving slowly,” said Nickel. “And you have homes contaminated that aren’t being cleaned up right now.”
“It’s a cause that has changed my life,” said Chappelle-Nadal. “I thought Ferguson changed my life. This is a big deal. This transcends race– death is death is death is death.”
“We are a sick and dying community,” Nickel added.
Together, these women hope to make a difference.
“What they used to make the bomb to end the war is what I believe I’ve been exposed to and will kill me,” said Oscko. “The only thing they can give me is time– but it didn’t have to be this way.”
The clean-up in St. Cin Park next to where Mary lives began in July and was supposed to be done at the end of November. Now, the goal is to wrap up the clean-up there at the end of February.
You can learn more about Coldwater Creek by clicking here.