Cancer Alley and the Impact of Racial Residential Segregation

Airborne pollutants containing carcinogenic compounds pose a severe threat to the health of Black residents living in racially segregated communities in the United States, according to a new study.

While previous studies have shown that people living in these communities are exposed to higher levels of fine particulate air pollution, the latest findings reveal even more troubling information. The study notes that people living in racially segregated communities not only breathe in more total fine particulate matter, but they also breathe a form of air pollution containing a greater concentration of toxic fine particulate metals generated by industrial factories. These substances are linked to serious health issues, such as cancer, and neurological and respiratory damage.

“Cancer Alley” and the EPA’s Response

The problem is especially acute in some regions, such as southeastern Louisiana, where Black residents face a disproportionate risk of cancer from multiple sources of industrial air pollution. In one specific area along the Mississippi River known as “Cancer Alley,” it’s estimated that the lifetime cancer risk is up to 47 times what the EPA deems to be acceptable. Meanwhile, at a predominantly Black elementary school in southeastern Louisiana, children have been exposed to carcinogen levels 11 times what the EPA considers acceptable. The school is located near a facility that produces neoprene (a form of synthetic rubber). It is the nation’s only industrial site that emits chloroprene, considered to be a carcinogen.

This situation has sparked civil rights complaints to the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), in turn prompting the EPA to send a letter to state regulators. In the letter, the EPA urged Louisiana’s environmental and health agencies to analyze the impact of a synthetic rubber plant and proposed Formosa plastics facility on nearby residents. The EPA further urged state regulators to move students out of the elementary school where air monitoring discovered high levels of chloroprene.

The letter cites years of data, studies, and state policies that show how Black residents are disproportionately harmed by air pollution. The root of the problem is air polluting factories that are situated close to communities where most residents are Black (known as “fence line” communities).

About the Study

According to the study, exposure to fine particulate matter is a leading contributor to the global burden of disease, however, exposure is not distributed evenly across racial and ethnic populations in the United States. Growing evidence reveals that communities with a high percentage of persons of color and of low socioeconomic stats are often disproportionately exposed to higher concentrations of total fine particulate matter. It’s believed that the disparity in exposure is linked to higher rates of adverse health outcomes, including cancer and asthma, among these populations.

Racial residential segregation refers to the systematic separation of racial or ethnic groups in separate geographical areas. Previous research has shown an increased risk of infant mortality, cardiovascular disease, and pregnancy complications linked to racial residential segregation.

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