Dangerous, radioactive particles are all over an elementary school in suburban St. Louis, according to a recently published analysis by Boston Chemical Data Corp.
The testing follows an earlier assessment by the Army Corps of Engineers that also found elevated levels of radiation near Jana Elementary School in Florissant, Missouri. However, the new report—which included indoor testing and more extensive samples from the school grounds—is even more startling, confirming fears of contamination.
Based on dust and soil samples collected in August, scientists found harmful, radioactive material in multiple locations inside the school, including the gymnasium, and kitchen—as well as on the grounds. In an outdoor, kindergarten play area the researchers determined levels of the isotope lead-210 were more than 22 times the expected background level. In addition to the radioactive lead isotope, the Boston Chemical scientists also found high levels of radium-266, polonium-210, multiple isotopes of thorium, and other compounds in and around the school.
Inhaling, ingesting, or even simply skin contact with these particles can cause “significant injury to humans,” said the report.
Jana Elementary is bordered by a small stream called Coldwater Creek. And though it may look picturesque, the waterway is polluted by the nuclear legacy of World War II.
A 21.7 acre area upstream from Jana Elementary, called the St. Louis Airport Site (SLAPS), served as a storage and dumping ground for radioactive material produced as part of the Manhattan Project for decades. There, nuclear waste leaked into the ground and headwaters of the Coldwater Creek, and flowed down the tributary of the Missouri River. The stream, which frequently floods, then spread that contamination even more broadly—into soil, buildings, home gardens and elsewhere.
In 2019, a federal report confirmed that people who lived along the creek and in its floodplain between the 1960s and 1990s likely faced an increased risk of leukemia, bone, and blood cancers. And the analysis of Jana Elementary brings renewed concern about ongoing exposure.
When she learned of the report, she “was heartbroken,” said Ashley Bernaugh, president of the Jana parent-teacher association whose son attends the school, to National Public Radio. “It sounds so cliché, but it takes your breath from you.”
In response to the findings, the school district released a statement on Friday saying it was “aware of the report regarding radioactive contamination at Jana Elementary.” The district went on to claim that it is working on next steps, consulting legal and scientific experts. “Safety is always our top priority, and we are actively discussing the implications of the findings.”
Coldwater Creek’s cleanup has been ongoing for more than 20 years, but clearly the remediation efforts haven’t been enough. In 2021, the Army Corps of Engineers pushed back the completion date for the cleanup to 2038.
“This has been in our community for over 80 years,” said Bernaugh to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We expect the school board to make the agencies responsible for this to come in and clean it up.” For now, next steps for the school, its students, and the community are unclear.