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Cancer rates are higher in polluted, poorer Louisiana neighborhoods, new study says

Exxon Mobile Plant
Jim Bowen
Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
An Exxon Mobil chemical plant outside Baton Rouge, LA.

Cancer rates in parts of rural Louisiana, particularly in the state's heavily-polluted industrialized areas, are much higher than the state average, according to a new study from Tulane University that appears to back up claims residents have been making for years.

The peer-reviewed study out of Tulane’s Environmental Law Clinic compared incidences of cancer from the Louisiana Tumor Registry at the Census tract level with pollution-related cancer risk estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Air Toxics Assessments.

It found that poor neighborhoods with high levels of air pollution accounted for about 85 new cancer cases per year. The average annual cancer rate in the state’s poor neighborhoods with high levels of air pollution is 502 cases per 100,000 people, compared to the state average of 480.3 cases per 100,000 people.

“We found that poverty plays an important role in the relationship between pollution and cancer rates in Louisiana,” said Kimberly Terrell, Staff Scientist at the Environmental Law Clinic and lead author of the peer-reviewed study, a first of its kind.

Cancer Incidences Louisiana
Study: Air pollution is linked to higher cancer rates among black or impoverished communities in Louisiana
Average age-adjusted annual cancer incidence rates from 2008 to 2017, as reported by the Louisiana Tumor Registry with a closeup on the Industrial Corridor from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.

Terrell said she became interested in researching the connection between cancer rates and air pollution after residents in St. James Parish, which lies along Louisiana’s industrial corridor — commonly called Cancer Alley — between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, reached out to the clinic for assistance.

“[They] were being told that data from the Louisiana Tumor Registry did not support their concerns about industrial pollution,” Terrell said. “A lot of these communities are small, rural places where everybody knows everybody and … we hear over and over that, ‘So many people in my family [and] so many [of] my friends are being diagnosed with cancer.’”

Environmental justice organizations Rise St. James and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade have for years been pushing to keep Formosa Plastics from building a 14-plant industrial park in the parish. In 2020 they, along with others, sued former President Donald Trump’s administration for permitting the project.

In August the Army Corps of Engineers ordered an environmental review of the proposed industrial park.

Residents of nearby St. John the Baptist Parish have attempted to file lawsuits against the Denka chemical plant for the high levels of chloroprene, a chemical linked to cancer and other health issues.

Race and Poverty Charts for Louisiana
Study: Air pollution is linked to higher cancer rates among black or impoverished communities in Louisiana
(Top) U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey data on the estimated percentage of Black residents between 2011 and 2015. (Bottom) U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey data on the estimated percentage of families living below the US federal poverty threshold between 2011 and 2015.

Those parishes, like other areas with high poverty and high air pollution, have large Black communities. According to U.S. Census data from 2020, St. John the Baptist is 58.4% Black, and St. James is 48.8% Black, well above the state’s 32.8% Black population.

“We did notice that the ones that were also overburdening with pollution typically were predominantly African American and overburdened with poverty,” the study’s co-author and research coordinator at the clinic Gianna St. Julien said.

Terrell said this is because “industrialization is not random.”

“Time and again, these facilities are being located in communities that are predominantly African-American and disproportionately impoverished,” she added.

The study found that poor neighborhoods with low air pollution — most often because they were in non-industrial areas — had cancer rates similar to the state’s average. They also found no connection between cancer rates and air pollution in affluent neighborhoods.

“That doesn't mean that there is no link or that affluent people are immune to the damaging effects of pollution. It simply means that we couldn't detect it,” Terrell said. “And it may very well be because affluent people have a greater ability to move away from pollution.” 

She pointed to a report in November 2021 that revealed that a chemical firm offered significantly more money in buyouts to White residents than Black residents of Mossville in western Louisiana, which forced many of the Black families to stay near the plant.

St. Julien said while the study revealed new academic findings, the information is not new for residents in the highly industrialized communities.

“Pretty much what we found is just consistent with all the things that they've been saying,” St. Julien said.

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick is the justice, race and equity reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson. She is also an Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations at Type Media Center.

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