Residents of Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” are appealing to an international human rights body for help in tackling high levels of toxic pollution in the area, and accuse the US government of having failed them for decades.
The community, predominantly Black and low-income, live along a 130-mile stretch of the Mississippi River in southeast Louisiana and face much higher cancer risks than most other Americans, according to assessments by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The area, encompassing St John the Baptist Parish, St James Parish and St Charles Parish, is a hub of heavy industry with nearly 150 oil refineries, plastic factories and chemical plants, which continues to expand.
The area not only has elevated water and air pollution but people suffer from more cancer and respiratory diseases among myriad other health problems. A UN report earlier this year called Cancer Alley a “serious and disproportionate” example of environmental racism.
On Wednesday the community group Concerned Citizens of St John filed an emergency request with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights seeking help.
As the legal document notes: “Even by Cancer Alley standards, St John stands out as an area of extreme pollution-related health risks — all eleven census tracts in St John are in the top 99.95th percentile nationally for cancer risk from air pollution”.
The Inter-American Commission defends human rights in the Americas and investigates alleged human rights abuses.
The group is asking the commission to direct the US government to set pollution limits, particularly on the toxic chemical chloroprene, and order its sole producer in the US, Denka Performance Elastomer, to cease operations.
Chloroprene is used to produce a synthetic rubber, neoprene, which shows up in wetsuits, beer koozies and laptop sleeves. According to the US government, chloroprene is a “likely” human carcinogen.
The chemical plant, which Japan-based Denka acquired from the US chemical giant DuPont in 2015, is located in the small town of LaPlace in St John parish.
The request, filed by Tulane Environmental Law Clinic on the group’s behalf, states that one of the neighbourhoods – Census Tract 708, where the population is 92 per cent Black – immediately surrounding the facility faces the highest air-pollution-related cancer risk in the country.
“The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) attributes 85% of the air-pollution-related cancer risk in this St John neighbourhood to exposure to a single, unusual pollutant: chloroprene,” the filing notes.
A 2010 toxicological review of chloroprene by the EPA suggested an increased susceptibility to chloroprene effects during childhood.
The EPA review states that: “No direct evidence has been found that indicates children are more susceptible to the toxic effects of chloroprene exposure than adults: exposures of children have not been reported and the metabolic fate of chloroprene in humans has not been sufficiently characterised.
“However, there are a number of issues that, when considered together, suggest that childhood may represent a lifestage with increased susceptibility to chloroprene effects.”
The St John human rights petition cites a 2021 study by the advocacy group, the University Network for Human Rights, which implemented survey-based health research in the area.
The study, which appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Justice in February, found higher rates of cancer, respiratory problems, and other health issues in people who live in closer proximity to Denka. The research also examined school and hospital records which suggested that children in the community are being severely affected by air pollution.
The emergency request is demanding the immediate relocation of Fifth Ward Elementary School, where nearly 80 per cent of students are Black and almost three-quarters live at the federal poverty level.
The chemical plant is located half a mile from the school.
Elva Perrilloux, who lives in the area, lost her youngest son to cancer.
“My baby boy grew up less than a mile from the plant and worked there when he was diagnosed with a stomach cancer that grew to the size of a basketball. He was only 20 years old when he died of the cancer,” Ms Perrilloux said.
Denka spokesperson Jim Harris toldThe Independent that “there is NO EPA literature that suggests stomach cancer to be related to chloroprene exposure”.
He said that the company operates well below emission limits in its permits from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, and now emits over 85 per cent less chloroprene than when Denka took over in 2015.
He said that “all available, credible scientific research on chloroprene conducted both before and after” the EPA’s 2011 National Air Toxics Assessment report, “discredit the suggestion that levels of emissions seen at the DPE facility could cause increased levels of cancer incidence”.
Mr Harris continued: “Again, according to decades of state-compiled and verified data, there is no increase in cancer incidence near the facility nor in St John the Baptist Parish. There also is no Cancer Alley. As has been stated by the Louisiana Tumor Registry, the ‘Cancer Alley’ claim has ‘no basis in reality’. Cancer rates in some parishes and census tracts, including in St John the Baptist Parish, are even lower than the state average.”
Dr Kimberley Terrell, from Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, told The Independent: “The Louisiana Tumor Registry (LTR) states that its reports cannot be used to draw conclusions about the relationship between pollution and cancer, because the LTR does not measure pollution.”
The LTR is run by the LSU Health Sciences Center School of Public Health and funded by the National Cancer Institute, the CDC and the state of Louisiana.
The institution noted this year that the LTR “as well as other state population-based cancer registries in the United States collect standard data items on reportable cancers. However, registries do not collect information on exposures or emissions”.
It concluded: “[I]n short, cancer rates alone neither prove a link between cancer and an industrial emission nor disprove such a link.”
The human rights petition from the St John community states that, while Cancer Alley communities have spent decades being unknowingly exposed to pollution from chloroprene along with other toxic substances, there is an urgent need for action due to Covid-19 health impacts, and the inadequate response from the EPA and other agencies.
The coronavirus has disproportionately impacted people of colour in the past year, exacerbated by illnesses and chronic conditions borne by communities who are more likely to live in the shadow of pollution, including industrial facilities, oil refineries, and highways.
Last April St John the Baptist Parish, with its population of 43,000, had the highest Covid death rate per capita in the US, and double the Louisiana death rate.
Robert Taylor, executive director of the Concerned Citizens of St. John, says that the group is continuing to seek relief from US agencies that have failed their community for decades.
“The United States Environmental Protection Agency and Louisiana Department of Environmental quality have conducted themselves more as surrogates of Denka than as protectors of the people,” said Mr Taylor.
“We demand that Denka cease operations until they can prove to the satisfaction of the people that their operations are safe and harmless.”
Last week the Concerned Citizens of St John called on the EPA to create an emergency plan to strengthen toxic emission rules for chloroprene and ethylene oxide. The Independent has contacted the EPA for comment.
The Office of the Inspector General at the EPA released a report this month calling on the agency to tackle the sources of chloroprene and ethylene oxide which increase lifetime cancer risks of nearly half a million people.
This article has been updated to amend a link to the EPA toxicological review on chloroprene. A clarification has been added to reflect the 2021 University Network for Human Rights study cited. This report has been updated to include a comment from Denka and Tulane’s Dr Kimberley Terrell