Low levels of radiation exist in nature, but the examination found radioactive materials “far in excess of the natural background” at Jana Elementary School, located in suburban Florissant, Missouri.
Environmental investigators took 32 soil, dust and plant samples from the school’s library, kitchen, classrooms, fields, playgrounds and ventilation system in August, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Colleen Schrappen.
In samples taken from the kindergarten playground, they found radioactive isotope lead-210 in quantities more than 22 times greater than the expected level. Near the basketball courts, they found 12 times the expected level. The analysis also revealed thorium-230, polonium-210 and radium-226 at the school.
Exposure to high amounts of radiation can lead to increased risk of cancer and other long-term health risks, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Polonium-210, for example, emits alpha particles that “carry high amounts of energy that can damage or destroy genetic material in cells inside the body,” per the CDC.
So far, it’s unclear who requested and funded the study.
The school, which is part of the Hazelwood School District and serves more than 400 students, is situated within the flood plain of Coldwater Creek. During World War II, weapons-makers dumped nuclear waste next to the creek near the St. Louis Lambert International Airport while developing atomic weapons for the Manhattan Project.
Workers at the Mallinckrodt facility in downtown St. Louis extracted uranium and radium during the war. They transferred waste from this process to two storage sites near Coldwater Creek but handled the radioactive material improperly, thus contaminating the 19-mile tributary of the Missouri River and surrounding areas, per the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
“The Jana school, like many homes, institutions and businesses in the area, borders Coldwater Creek,” says Marco Kaltofen, Boston Chemical’s president and principal investigator, to CNN’s Michelle Watson and Tina Burnside. “Unfortunately, when Coldwater Creek floods its banks, some of that radioactive material is deposited on neighboring land, such as the school.”
The Army Corps of Engineers has spent the last 25 years cleaning up the contaminated creek. Last December, the Corps delayed the completion date for the $34.55 million remediation and cleanup project to 2038.
Previous Corps analyses, which started in 2018, have also found radioactive contamination in the vicinity of the school, though at much lower levels. The Corps did not take any exterior measurements within 300 feet of the school, nor any inside the school, however.
A spokesman for the Corps said the agency would evaluate the Boston Chemical report and its methods, reports The Independent's Louise Boyle.
The district’s school board plans to discuss the radioactive waste measurements at its meeting Tuesday. On Friday, the district said in a statement that its leaders were “actively discussing the implications of the findings” and will be consulting with attorneys and experts to determine how to move forward.
“Safety is always our top priority,” per the district's statement.
Parents, meanwhile, expressed grave concerns about sending their children to school this week.
“I was heartbroken,” says Ashley Bernaugh, president of the school’s parent-teacher association, to the Associated Press. “It sounds so cliché, but it takes your breath from you.”