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New Public Health Study Does Little To Allay Fears In Cancer Alley

Industry lines the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

A long-promised study on cancer in St. John the Baptist Parish was released by Louisiana State University this week, but it does little to alleviate the fears of residents there.

Over the past several decades, chemical, oil and fertilizer companies from all over the world have built plants along the Mississippi River. It’s a good place for business, with access to international ports and tax incentives from the state. But people live there, too, and they say the pollution is making them sick. They’ve been asking the state to help them. Officials promised a public health study.

George Handy Sr. has lived in St. John the Baptist Parish for more than 40 years. Just a few years ago, he bought a new house on West Fifth Street in LaPlace, right next to two big chemical plants.

“If I would have known what was going on, I wouldn't have purchased a house here,” he said. “Anywhere you go outside you know you’re going to be breathing toxic fumes, you can't get away from it.”

Handy and many other residents claim the pollution is making people sick.

“We know plenty of people who have died and are sick right now,” he said. “Some people are afraid to go outside”

According to an analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Air Toxics Assessment, five census tracts around Handy’s neighborhood have the highest cancer risk in the country. His neighbors include a Dupont chemical plant and Denka Performance Elastomer, which has been repeatedly investigated and fined for releasing chloroprene, a likely carcinogen.

In November of 2019, state officials held a community meeting at Our Lady of Grace Church in Reserve, just down the street from where Handy lives.

Rebekah Gee was the head of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals at the time, and she spoke to a packed auditorium of concerned, mostly Black residents.

“The governor has made very clear to me that this community matters to him,” she said. “You are not being ignored. We are going to address your concerns.”

For years, people in the river parishes between Baton Rouge and New Orleans have complained of health problems ranging from cancer to respiratory illnesses. But it has been challenging to prove links between cancer and air pollution.

So the state promised a study, conducted by LSU.

But what was produced this week was an audit of the state’s tumor registry, which the study found has an accurate count of cancer cases. Crucially, it did not look at what was causing the cancer.

Ruhan Nagra works with the University Network for Human Rights, an advocacy group which has conducted its own research in the area.

“There was this public perception that this was going to be some kind of comprehensive study that answered the question of is chloroprene causing elevated cancer (rates). It was never going to be that,” she said.

The audit involved interviews with people who live near the Denka plant.

“The only thing we can say from this study is that we know the registry is complete,” said Ed Trapido, associate Dean for Research at LSU’s school of public health and oversaw the study.

He said measuring the rate of cancer cases is a flawed way to measure risk. It takes 20 years for most people to get cancer, and air pollution can cause many other illnesses.

“We can't allay the fears of the community, because that's not what we were able to accomplish in this approach,” he said.

He doesn’t deny that people are getting sick.

“We take the community's concern very seriously and wish I could give them reassurance,” he said

He said a better study would look at what chemicals are being released and what residents are being exposed to. But that would take money he said the state doesn’t have.

“It's a bit disappointing to see the state not investing resources in addressing that concern,” said Kim Terrell, community outreach director for the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic.

Advocates say the LSU study was a waste of money. They wrote a letter to the head of the EPA complaining that the state had misused a $300,000 grant to fund it. The state did not confirm the source of the funding.

“That's a lot of money that could have been used to fund several years of community air monitoring,” Nagra said.

She said the EPA’s risk assessments should be enough to make Gov. John Bel Edwards take action, and force Denka and other plants to decrease their emissions.

Handy said the residents of St. John Parish are sick and tired of studies.

“Being worried about us and doing something are two different things,” he said.

In his opinion, the reason the state isn’t doing more is simple: most of the residents are Black. He said it’s environmental racism, and he has little hope that anything will ever change.

Gov. Edwards’ office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on how the LSU study was funded or whether it had plans for future public health studies in the region.

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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