Studies Confirm Health Risk in ‘Cancer Alley’ is Real

“Cancer Alley” is the nickname for a notorious industrial corridor along the lower Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Day and night, more than 200 industrial facilities in this area – oil refineries, plastics plants, chemical plants and other facilities – send plumes of pollution into the air. Environmental groups coined the name several years ago, but Louisiana state officials discount the accuracy of the term.

“LDEQ [Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality] does not use the term ‘cancer alley,’” spokesman Greg Langley said. “That term implies that there is a large geographic area that has higher cancer incidence than the state average. We have not seen higher cancer incidence over large areas of the industrial corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.”

What Did the Tulane University Studies Find Regarding Cancer Risk?

Two recent studies from Tulane University’s Environmental Law Clinic confirmed the accuracy of the term “Cancer Alley” and concluded that the manner in which permits are issued for industrial facilities is an important factor in how much nearby residents are exposed to pollution. The study confirmed that residents near the industrial corridor experience higher cancer risk.

The most recent study, published in January 2023, found that half of the industrial facilities in Louisiana are located along “Cancer Alley.” Communities in this area – predominantly people of color – experienced 7 to 21 times the amount of polluting emissions than other areas. The study advised that state regulators “needed to address the discriminatory outcomes of industrial permitting in Louisiana.”

Another study, published in January 2022, looked for any links between the poor communities clustered around industrial areas and the risk of cancer. One conclusion of the study read: “While cancer risk from air toxins is uniformly high across Louisiana’s Industrial Corridor by national rankings, this burden is unevenly distributed among neighborhoods.”

The 2022 study summarized: “Our analysis provides evidence of a statewide link between cancer rates and carcinogenic air pollution in marginalized communities and suggests that toxic air pollution is a contributing factor to Louisiana’s cancer burden.”

“I’m hopeful that these studies will result in better use of science in decision-making,” said Kimberly Terrell, an author of both Tulane studies. “We know right now that science is often ignored or data are misconstrued. I’m hopeful that having these studies available for community members to cite elevates the conversation to where we’re talking about facts and data and statistics.”

“We’re already heavily industrialized, but there are more facilities that are trying to make their way into Louisiana,” said Gianna St. Julien, another author of the studies. “Ultimately, it comes down to protecting the health of people living within the state that are currently being overburdened and don’t exactly have access to resources to protect their health.”

The EPA Has Also Found Health Risks

In addition to these studies, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is already aware of the impact of pollution in the industrial areas of Louisiana. Inside Climate News pointed out that “U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mapping shows the region’s residents have some of the highest health risks in the nation from breathing toxic chemicals.”

In October 2022, the EPA responded to three filed complaints by examining Louisiana’s administration of pollution control permits. In a letter to the LDEQ, the EPA said LDEQ’s permitting process exposed residents who live near a chemical factory and children who attend a nearby elementary school “to average annual concentrations of chloroprene in ambient air at levels associated with increased lifetime cancer risk.”

The EPA further pointed out that the Clean Air Act’s list of hazardous air pollutants “are known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects or birth defects, or adverse environmental effects.”

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