Justice Department Lawsuit Targets ‘Cancer Alley’ Polluters

A stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that was once home to family farms is now littered with industrial developments, including plastics manufacturers and petrochemical plants. This 100-mile area has been dubbed “Cancer Alley,” because of the high incidence of cancer, birth defects and respiratory disease since the influx of these factories. In fact, cancer risks for residents are 50 times higher than the national average.

Residents who live in and around Cancer Alley may finally see some justice, however. Following a 10-month investigation, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed a lawsuit against Denka Performance Elastomer LLC and DuPont over violations of the Clean Air Act. Of particular interest in the lawsuit are high levels of likely carcinogen chloroprene detected in the air around the factory. Although Denka, which purchased the factory from DuPont in 2015, has reduced emissions somewhat, the DOJ says they must reduce chloroprene discharges much further. DuPont still owns the land on which the factory sits.

What is Chloroprene?

Chloroprene is a liquid in its raw form. The chemical is used in the production of neoprene used in koozies, wetsuits, car seat covers, laptop sleeves and other products. When it turns into a gas during production of neoprene, it is invisible but does have a distinct smell.

The EPA and other organizations classify chloroprene as a likely carcinogen because there is enough evidence to link it to cancer, but not enough yet for it to be classified as a “known carcinogen.” Studies show that children exposed to chloroprene may have more health risks than adults.

In addition to cancer, exposure to chloroprene has been linked to nausea, dizziness, respiratory distress, rapid heartbeat, skin and eye irritation, and blood cell changes. It may also cause birth defects, such as hydrocephalus and cerebral herniation.

How are Residents of ‘Cancer Alley’ Exposed to Chloroprene?

The Denka factory emits chloroprene into the air from multiple areas of the facility during the manufacturing process. It is the only plant in the U.S. that makes neoprene. Denka claims that it has reduced emissions by 85% from 2014 levels since installing emissions control equipment in 2018, however, the DOJ claims in the lawsuit that emissions consistently register at 14 times the levels recommended over a 70-year lifetime.

The factory is near homes and schools, and simply going outside to play at recess or opening a window at home exposes people to the dangerous chemical. Workers at the plant are likely exposed to even higher levels of the chemical.

When you combine this likely carcinogen with other chemical pollutants in the area, it is easy to see why residents of Cancer Alley have been fighting to get current polluters to clean up their act and prevent other factories from being built.

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