The St. Louis Suburbs Bear the Cost of America’s Nuclear Past

(Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images)

At the request of a high school friend, Lacy M. Johnson began investigating an area north of St. Louis where toxic waste from the Manhattan Project was illegally dumped in 1974. The resulting piece for Guernica finds Johnson diving into the human costs of America’s decision to end the war on Japan with expedient nuclear force.

The years of experimentation leading up to the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the years dealing with the nuclear fallout, have taken a lasting toll on the home front. Areas in St. Louis county near the Westlake Landfill Superfund site have higher incidence of lupus, rare cancers, neuropathy, and congenital defects than the general population. Although the EPA has maintained that the site is minimally hazardous, some residents have formed advocacy groups to raise awareness and demand immediate removal of the waste.

When Karen and her husband bought a house in North County for their own growing family, they chose one not far from the neighborhood where she’d splashed through the creek as a girl. But in the summer of 1999 she ran across a parking lot in the rain and then couldn’t get out of bed for days. Maybe she had come down with the flu, she thought. She visited her doctor, who didn’t know what to make of her symptoms. Karen’s blood work showed signs that antibodies were attacking the proteins in the nuclei of her cells. “Lupus,” the doctor told her, years later. He prescribed steroids to manage the symptoms of the disease, and mostly it did manage them. She felt healthy more often than ill. But in July 2012 she collapsed at her daughter’s softball game and didn’t bounce back, didn’t return to work, or to feeling healthy. Her doctor said this might be the new normal.

Karen went to a new doctor, who told her that there’s increasing consensus that lupus can be brought on by environmental triggers, including exposure to contaminants and chemicals, like cigarette smoke, silica, and mercury. In particular, he said, recent studies have shown a link between lupus and uranium exposure. That night over dinner Karen’s husband asked if she remembered a story on the news from a few months before about the creek that ran through her neighborhood. She remembered only vaguely. “Well, it was something about uranium contamination,” he said, looking up from his plate.

“And?” she said.

“And, well, maybe you should look into that.”

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