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Jun 11, 2024, 12:53pm EDT
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Semafor Signals

Air in Louisiana’s ‘Cancer Alley’ may be far more toxic than previously thought: Study

Insights from NBC News, ProPublica, and The Guardian

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People march for environmental justice in St. James, Louisiana, on Sept. 8, 2018.
Fernando Lopez | Survival Media Agency
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The News

People who live near facilities that manufacture the toxic gas ethylene oxide are exposed to far higher levels of the carcinogen than previously thought, researchers at Johns Hopkins University reported. The gas is used in some chemical manufacturing processes and other industries.

The study focused on Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” an 85-mile area near Baton Rouge where residents have a long history of exposure to extreme pollution.

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The researchers found levels of ethylene oxide thousands of times higher than what is considered safe, and far higher than past Environmental Protection Agency estimates for the region.

The researchers said people in the area deserve to understand the real risks they live with.

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Government has failed residents of ‘Cancer Alley,’ advocates say

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Sources:  
Human Rights Watch, NBC News

“The failure of state and federal authorities to properly regulate the industry has dire consequences for residents of Cancer Alley,” a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch said. The EPA hasn’t properly enforced federal regulations for fossil fuel and other chemical companies in Louisiana, Human Rights Watch alleged, and has failed to protect the area’s residents. When the EPA knew the plants emitted a carcinogen, the agency “could have immediately shut down, but they didn’t do that,” a former deputy director of the EPA enforcement division overseeing Louisiana told NBC News. “It’s unconscionable that it has taken this long.”

EPA acknowledges environmental racism at play

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Sources:  
ProPublica, Bloomberg

Black residents of Cancer Alley face disproportionate health risks, the EPA found in a 2022 report, an example of environmental racism: when communities of color bear the brunt of environmental hazards. “For people of color living in the region, fresh air is certainly not a right; it is a privilege for others to experience,” Brookings Institution researchers wrote. The EPA had accused regulators in Louisiana of ignoring Black residents’ concerns, but after Louisiana’s attorney general filed a lawsuit in 2023, the federal agency abruptly closed the case. Yet some environmental justice advocates said the agency’s acknowledgement that environmental racism exists was nonetheless “remarkable.”

Ethylene oxide isn’t the only environmental risk in Cancer Alley

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Sources:  
The Guardian, Johns Hopkins University

The new study focused on ethylene oxide, in part because so little public data existed about it, but the researchers noted that it’s just one of a slew of chemicals to which people in the area are exposed. The team found that ethylene oxide makes up about 68% of the hazardous air pollutant threat in Cancer Alley, but “the reality is people aren’t just breathing ethylene oxide, they are breathing a whole soup of chemicals,” one researcher told The Guardian. “When you start to add everything up it becomes a much more problematic picture.”

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