News, Culture & Society

Louisiana officials to go door to door in ‘cancer alley’ town with highest airborne risk in US

Louisiana health officials have agreed to knock on every single door in ‘cancer alley’ – the area within 2.5km of the only power plant that releases a likely carcinogen into the surrounding atmosphere.  

Chloroprene was designate as a likely cause of cancer in 2010. 

But nearly a decade later, the Denka Performance Elastomer plant, which makes neoprene, in LaPlace, Louisiana, still the chemical its plumes of smoke and steam. 

It’s the only plant that still releasing chloroprene, which has been linked to lung, kidney mammary gland tumors in animal studies.

As a result, the airborne cancer risk of residents of the area is the highest in the nation. 

After years of outcry from residents and dismissal by local authorities, the state has partnered with the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Centers to send graduate students to ever home within 2.5 km of the plant, ProPublica reported. 

Louisiana health officials are working with a local university to go door-to-door to every residence in a 2.5km radius of the Denka neoprene manufacturing plant that emits a likely carcinogen into the air. The study will ask every household if any of its residents have cancer

Several studies have been conducted attempting to establish whether the plant has indeed caused an increase in cancers in the surrounding area, and the new study will attempt to verify the state’s registry of tumors. 

Just over 2.5km from the Denka power plant is the center of a small town called Reserve, with a population of about 9,100.  

‘Almost every household has somebody that died with cancer or that’s battling cancer,’ resident Mary Hampton told The Guardian in May. 

‘It’s the worst thing you’d ever want to see: a loved one, laying in that bed, pining away, dying. Just to sit and look at them, and know you can’t do anything about it.’ 

It was a sentiment echoed by many residents, according to The Guardian. 

But at the end of the day, these residents’ woes are just anecdotes – and ones that have proved difficult to prove through national or statewide tracking. 

In 2015, the EPA’s report confirmed what residents’ of Reserve believed: that the air they breathed was putting them at far higher risk of cancer than an average American has.  

Parsing out whether those risks translated to actual cases of cancer is trickier. 

Cancer rates are predominantly calculated at the county – or in Louisiana’s case, parishes – level and don’t capture more granular differences from town to town. 

Louisiana has one of the highest rates of cancer in the nation, but St John Baptist the Parish, where Reserve is located, has a cancer rate of 466 cases per 100,000 residents (of which there are about 219,114) – just six percent above the national average. 

But amid national attention on so-called ‘cancer alley,’ the University Network for Human Rights, an activist group, launched its own investigation. 

In July, it released its findings: substantially higher rates of cancer surrounding the Denka plant. 

Louisiana officials, however, panned the study’s findings and methodology, which involved using volunteers to collect information. 

In June, Louisiana State Attorney General Jeff Landry gave the state’s EPA the green light to sue the Denka plant, which has claimed to be making efforts to reduce chloroprene emissions, but has certainly not managed to bring the level to zero. 

Now, the state is getting involved again, working with Louisiana State University to create a purportedly more rigorous study. 

The information gathered by the grad students’ door-to-door travels will be compared to the the state’s tumor registry. 

Residents may be asked to substantiate their diagnoses if they don’t align with the registry. 

The aim will be to work out if indeed the cancer rates in Reserve are higher as well as assessing the accuracy of the tumor registry. 

When the study was first announced in August, Denka promised cooperation. 

Spokesman Jim Harris said Denka ‘welcomes any additional studies that are based on sound scientific methodology and conducted by credentialed health research professionals, ProPublica reported. 

‘It is also important that any study be peer reviewed by experts.’ 

Activists, too, are glad to see the state take their concerns more seriously, but they’re not convinced the study will solve any health problems. 

‘How does a well-established, well-respected tumor registry translate into relief for us?’ asked Robert Taylor, a leader of the Concerned Citizens of St John, in an interview with ProPublica. 

‘If we can help you establish credibility and you’re going to use the credibility to help us, we’ll be willing to do whatever is necessary to help protect our community from this plant.’ 


Comments are closed.