EPA Administrator’s Visit to Cancer Alley Sparks Hope

EPA Administrator Michael Regan recently visited Louisiana residents who live in an area known as Cancer Alley, which has hotspots where cancer and other health problems are through the roof. For the first Black man to lead the agency, the visit, Regan said, was personal.

“As I look at many of the folks in these communities – they look just like me. They look just like my son, and it’s really tough to see them question the quality of their drinking water,” Regan told The Associated Press.

More than 150 chemical plants and refineries line the 85-mile-long stretch along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans known as Cancer Alley, and residents have reported substantial health issues from exposure to toxic chemicals.

Regan has made environmental justice a top priority since taking over as EPA head last year. The EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory shows that minority groups make up 56% of people living near toxic sites such as refineries, landfills, and chemical plants. Health effects include chronic problems such as asthma, diabetes, and hypertension.

A 2012 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that in Cancer Alley, residents living in predominantly Black areas had a 16% higher risk of cancer compared to those living in White neighborhoods, and people living in low-income sections had a 12% higher risk than those living in higher-income areas.

“It’s striking to hear the conversations with community members about the exorbitant amounts of cancers in their families,” Regan told The Guardian. “And then you think about the children already being in harm’s way – that’s most striking to me.”

Cancer Alley in Louisiana is one of the most polluted places in the United States, and residents are 50 times more likely to get cancer than the average American, earning the area its unfortunate nickname. Louisiana chemical and refinery workers are especially vulnerable to the health risks associated with chemical exposure, including cancer and the potential for birth defects in their offspring.

About 50 toxic chemicals, including benzene, formaldehyde, and ethylene oxide, circulate in the air there. Research shows there are high numbers of lung, stomach, and kidney cancer among certain populations living in Cancer Alley.

Ethylene oxide is a flammable, colorless gas used to make chemicals commonly found in plastics, antifreeze, adhesives, and other consumer products. Exposure to ethylene oxide can result in respiratory and lung problems, headache, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, and other health issues. Chronic exposure has been associated with birth defects, mutations, brain damage and cancer.

One of the most concerning chemicals found in Cancer Alley is chloroprene. According to the EPA, chloroprene is likely to cause cancer in humans, along with headaches, irritability, dizziness, insomnia, fatigue, respiratory irritation, chest pains, nausea, gastrointestinal disorders, dermatitis, temporary hair loss, liver function abnormalities, disorders of the cardiovascular system and depression of the immune system.

Beverly Wright, executive director of the New Orleans-based Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, told The Associated Press that the problems Regan witnessed on his tour of Cancer Alley are “generational battles” with no easy solution.

“When you can taste the chemicals in your mouth … it’s a lot more difficult to ignore,” she said.

Some residents, however, were hopeful.

“I’m hoping that this is the beginning of a change,” resident Robert Taylor said to The Guardian about Regan’s visit. “A change in the relationship with the agencies that are supposedly there to protect us.”

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