Titled "Silent Killer," this three-panel painting depicts Coldwater Creek and the individuals who may have been irradiated by exposure to it.
When Mary’s painting, “Silent Killer,” hung in the Millennium Student Center at the University of Missouri- St. Louis, she talked to a number of students. Many asked her about the painting’s subject: Coldwater Creek, the nuclear threat that runs right through Mary’s backyard and may be the cause of her cancer.
Some people wondered aloud if the contaminated area is where north St. Louis County’s urban legend of “Bubblehead people” came from. But only one already knew about the creek. Mary, who asked that her full name not be used because she is private about her illness, wants her painting to change that lack of awareness.
“The people that lived here before us both died of cancer. The person to my right, they’re fine except the father did die of cancer. There’s somebody who lives catty corner to me who has cancer.” She lists two more friends who have cancer, in addition to a few of her pets — two cats who died of cancer, a dog with a foot tumor. And then, she says, doctors discovered that both she and her partner had cancer, the diagnoses made within a month of each other.
“We went to radiation together. That was romantic,” Mary says, wryly. She suffered from breast cancer; her partner was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Mary painted 25 small paintings of moths to get through chemotherapy. And then she created “Silent Killer.” She gathered found materials from the creek, then painted over them. Her style is “cartoonish,” which Mary thinks draws people in. “They think it’s going to be funny,” Mary says. It’s not. Instead, people discover paintings that depict the horror and frustration of living somewhere that might be killing you.
But as development radiated out from the central city, and residents moved to the suburbs, that changed. In some cases, the waste moved too. Some of it, which had been stored north of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, was relocated to 9200 Latty Avenue’s Hazelwood Interim Storage Site, near Coldwater Creek, in 1956. The waste was left on the ground, open to the air; years and elements spread contamination, with the creek ultimately the receptacle for some say may be a particularly high concentration.
In 2008, former residents became concerned. A few years later, a group started gathering information. “We noticed all our friends were sick and dying, but we didn’t know what the cause was,” explains Kim Thone Visintine, who now helps organize more than 13,000 people in the Facebook group “Coldwater Creek - Just the Facts Please.”
In 2013 the Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services released a report saying that cancer rates around Coldwater Creek were mostly normal. But that report was based on limited data; since then, an updated report found cancer rates that gave more cause for concern. And Visintine’s group’s public surveys — which found extremely high levels of rare cancers in former and current residents — in part provoked a reconsideration of the creek’s contamination. “The only thing we have in common is that we grew up in this community,” Visintine says.
Coldwater Creek Facts
The map of cancers reported by current and former Coldwater Creek residents.
Visintine calls the entire thing a “huge comedy of errors” — not because it’s particularly funny, but because the series of events, accidents and bad decisions that led to the current situation seem absurd. “It’s like nobody was talking,” she says. By most accounts, Mallinckrodt had no idea that residential areas would be affected (although the company has received criticism for its handling of nuclear waste).
The neighborhood was, as Visintine remembers, a “quintessential” middle-class communit — “everything you’d expect in Midwestern America.”
In her time as an accidental community activist, Visintine has seen a lot of frustration. “No one’s going to rush in and save the day. There’s no bad guy,” she explains. That makes it hard for some people to cope. “We can’t undo it.” The poison was unwittingly released decades ago, and now people are facing the consequences. Visintine herself lost her son to a brain tumor.
Visintine understands the urge to anger and protest, but doesn’t see the purpose in that. “What are you picketing?” she asks. Instead, from her perspective, the only thing left to do is educate.
Visintine recalls a friend of hers from high school. She was a bit of a drama queen. She also had a lot of migraines. Everyone at school thought her migraines stemmed from her need for attention. But a decade later, doctors found a brain tumor. She died. “We all discounted it,” Visintine says. Why would anyone have a brain tumor?
Visintine’s efforts now go towards making sure people like that now get diagnosed in time. She also works toward getting governmental restitution. There are various avenues, including the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, but Visintine says the financial restitution it offers barely covers the average deductible.
Katelyn Mae Petrin
The FUSRAP program surveys sites for radiation, then cleans up any causes for concern.
Visintine opposes a neighborhood buyout; she says she doesn’t believe it could even begin to cover the losses, financial and personal. Others are less sure. If the money were right, it wouldn’t be unwelcome. But some people — like Mary — bought their homes before knowledge of radioactive materials nearby cratered property values. The value of their homes are worth today, which is what they’d likely be compensated, will almost certainly not make them whole.
“We’re not a happy story. I wish we were,” Visintine says. “We’re just hoping raising awareness will keep someone from ending up with a terminal disease.”
The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is currently in the early stages of collecting data “to evaluate potential exposures to hazardous substances and how those exposures may have impacted public health in the past, present, and future,” a spokeswoman says. The radiation is definitely in the soil, but its exact health consequences are uncertain. Officially, the cause of elevated cancer rates in the area remains unknown.
Katelyn Mae Petrin
The current cleanup site at Duchesne Park is littered and murky.
What is known, however, is that as of 2015, 2,725 cancers were reported to Visintine’s group; more have been reported since. Additionally, the area sits on a floodplain, so contaminants don’t necessarily stay put. As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has continued cleaning waste from the area, they have found more and more radioactive soil near homes. The cleanup is estimated to take another five to ten years, depending on funding and how many new sites are found.
“The thing about it is you’re not sure,” Mary says. A nine-year resident of Florissant and lifetime resident of north county, she fears environmental contamination could have come from several places. Maybe she was exposed while playing in a tributary in Ferguson, which she thinks might have contained radioactive runoff from the airport. Or her breast cancer could even be unrelated. It’s hard to tell.
The legacy of St. Louis’s involvement with the Manhattan Project is complex: Mary remembers hearing about at least one other nuclear waste cleanup project near her, years ago. And her husband at the time worked at Mallinckrodt. She wonders whether his Alzheimer’s could have anything to do with that job. She wishes she could test her own backyard soil, just to make sure it’s safe, but doesn’t know where to begin.
Next: A newcomer finds a way to turn tragedy to art.
Audrey Simes is a newcomer to Florissant. She moved there about seven months ago. At the time, she didn’t know about the creek.
“When I looked at the cancer cluster map, and I spotted where I live right at the heart of it, it made me think about the people I love that live there and that have lived there their whole lives and that have raised their children there and whose parents grew up there and spent their whole lives there,” Simes explains. So she’s decided to do something about her own — and others’ — lack of awareness.
Simes is one of several artists chosen as part of the Dance St. Louis Spring to Dance Festival’s young choreographers showcase. Over the past few months, she has worked with artistic collaborators and the Big Muddy Dance Company to tell a story that is both her own and others. It’s scheduled for a performance on Sunday, May 29 at UMSL’s Lee Theater.
Katelyn Mae Petrin
This costume piece, inspired by Japanese folklore, is worn by a soloist.
As a Japanese American, Simes has seen the consequences of nuclear warfare throughout her life. She had grandparents on both sides during World War II. Growing up in California made her acutely aware of that history.
“At a different time I would have been interned at the very place I graduated high school,” she notes. The ceremony occurred on a field that had been an internment camp.
Simes wants to show the legacy of World War II, beginning with the Manhattan Project and ending with its fallout in St. Louis via Coldwater Creek. She ties the piece together with scenes inspired by Japanese folk figures, the fallout in Japan, and the consequences of ignoring the sins of the past.
Katelyn Mae Petrin
The costumes, designed by Simes and artist Basil Kincaid, combine natural and synthetic materials.
“We’re really starting to see the true impact of [the Manhattan Project]. It’s immeasurable,” Simes explains. “It’s a different angle that we never thought of. What is this going to do to us from within?”
The piece is “about trying to find a way to heal.” She wants to show how people are coping and ask “where do we go from here?” For Simes, healing means not just physical recovery — cleaning radiation and rebuilding communities — but also unifying people who suffer from a common problem. The final scene’s soundtrack is laced with depositions and speeches given by Coldwater Creek residents, to give a sense of their struggle and perspective.
Katelyn Mae Petrin
Big Muddy Dance Company rehearses Simes' pieces.
Simes hopes that using the Spring to Dance Festival as a platform will bring the issue to a new audience that might not know much about it. She wants it to make them think ― and maybe even act.
“Nuclear warfare is still afflicting people, our own people, who we never intended to affect with these consequences,” Simes says.
Next: Turning to prayer — and legal advocacy
Kerry Huffines, a former Coldwater Creek resident, would like to see Simes’ dance, but when she spoke with the Riverfront Times in March she wasn’t certain she’d be able to make it―not because of a schedule conflict, but because she had already outlived her doctor’s prognosis by several months.
“I’m not done. I have a lot to live for. I want to see my daughter grow up,” Huffines says.
When Huffines was diagnosed with cancer of the appendix more than five years ago, “We actually thought we were pregnant.” Since then, she’s opted against chemotherapy and undergone seventeen surgeries. “My stomach is like Swiss cheese,” she adds.
Coldwater Creek Facts
The number of rare appendix cancers reported by people in North County exceeds normal.
No treatment patterns are fully known for her condition because it’s incredibly rare. She was told at the time that the disorder was one in one million, although it’s much more common now.
The frequency of this particular cancer is what set off warning bells for many: nearly 50 cases have been self-reported by people who grew up near Coldwater Creek. According to Dr. Faisal Khan, director of St. Louis County Department of Public Health, there are only about 1,000 cases nationwide each year. In a journal article published last December, Khan calls this incidence rate one of several “huge red flags.”
Huffines has hung on in part by wanting to live her life, but also by embracing religion. “I just wouldn’t be anywhere without my faith,” she says. She says she lives knowing that what happens to her is in God’s hands.
Katelyn Mae Petrin
Huffines' dog also has cancer.
And despite everything, she says, she’s thankful for every day. “Through it all I’ve never felt more love and support and unity from the people who are going through this. There’s just a common bond.”
Recently, Visintine — a childhood friend of Huffines — put her in touch with a woman, Patricia Barry, who had more recently been diagnosed with the same cancer. Barry opted for chemotherapy, which they treated as if her disease was colon cancer, because the doctors otherwise didn’t know what protocol to use. For Barry, that went well. “Basically, I am a case study,” she says.
Both women say that the cancer has taken a lot from their families, but that they draw hope by investing in their children. But even though she moved to Chesterfield fifteen years ago, Barry fears for her family. Sometimes when she takes her four children out, she wonders, “What are they playing in?”
That’s one reason Huffines wants to see more education and faster cleanup. “There are kids now sleeping in our old bedrooms with this stuff right outside. It’s gotta get cleaned up. People have got to do something to help the people that are still facing this.”
Kerry Thone Visitine
Kim Huffines (stripes) and Kim Thone Visitine (front) playing together as children in Florissant.
And both women remember playing in the creek as children. “I think probably anyone you talk to from north county — honestly, we just had a lot of fun. We just enjoyed being outside being scruffy kids being dirty,” says Huffines. She tries to keep those memories separate from her life now, because, she says, she doesn’t want them tainted.
Barry emphasizes that she wishes she had known better than to make those memories in the first place. “It wasn’t a choice for me to get cancer. I played in a creek and got cancer. The weirdest cancer that no one gets. But I did,” she says. “I should’ve been told.”
Many residents have filed lawsuits, but the process has been slow. Currently, hundreds of litigants hold out hope for a case filed by an Edwardsville-based firm, Tor Hoerman Law. They’re suing Mallinckrodt and a Colorado company responsible for spreading the waste throughout North County.
Janet Davis is one woman involved with that case. In October, her husband, Charlie — who used to work for Mallinckrodt — died of colon cancer. Like many, she has no idea if Coldwater Creek has anything to do with her husband’s illness, but she would like answers.
They didn’t find out about “this Coldwater Creek thing,” she says, until her husband was accepted into a study that examined chemotherapy patients at Barnes Jewish Hospital. Like others, she worries that her children could have been exposed.
Now Davis just hopes that someone will have to answer for their actions. “If this is related to [Coldwater Creek],” she says, she wants “for whoever who is responsible to held accountable and responsible for. And that goes all the way back to the people who dumped the crap wherever they dumped it.”
She compares the situation to a break-in: you don’t let someone break into a house just because they have esteem.
“It doesn’t have a damn thing to do with a dime. It’s got more to do with what’s right and what’s wrong,” Davis explains. “You can give me $50 million and it ain’t bringing my husband back. You can give me all the money on the planet―you can give me the planet, and it won’t bring my husband back.”
By fighting back, by raising awareness, by turning their suffering into art, these survivors ultimately hope that no one will have to suffer the way their families have. Huffines marvels when she thinks back on how it all began: “I was twelve years old, happy as can be, but being pummeled by radioactive waste.”
Editor's note: This story was edited after publication to remove one detail about a woman who'd suffered from brain cancer. We also corrected the misspelling of one name. We regret the error.