These Louisiana Jobs Expose Workers to Toxic Chemicals
Going to work and doing your job shouldn’t put your health and your child’s life in danger. But for some plastics and petrochemical industry workers in Louisiana, that’s exactly the case.
Along an 85-mile Mississippi River corridor in Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley,” there are more than 150 chemical plants and refineries that emit toxic chemicals at high enough levels that they must report their emissions to the EPA.
Residents along the stretch of smokestacks between Baton Rouge and New Orleans have reported health problems from toxic pollution exposure, including birth defects and cancer. It’s 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.
Workers in these power plants that burn fossil fuels including coal, oil, and natural gas are at risk of having children with birth defects. Exposure to chemicals used on the job can severely damage an unborn child if the mother was not protected from these toxins during pregnancy. People who have had jobs in plastics manufacturing are also exposed to dangerous chemicals that can cause birth defects.
There are nearly 50 toxic chemicals in the air in Cancer Alley, including known carcinogens like benzene, which is found in the air from emissions from burning coal and oil. Benzene is one of the most widely used chemicals in the United States and is used to make plastics, detergents, pesticides, Styrofoam, resins, and synthetic fibers. It is also used to make synthetic rubber, gums, lubricants, dyes, pharmaceuticals, and agricultural chemicals.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that 2 to 3 million U.S. workers may be exposed to benzene. Over 6 million pounds of benzene are released into the U.S. environment annually.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, exposures from less than five years to more than 30 years have caused people to develop and die from leukemia. Long-term exposure may affect bone marrow and blood production. Short-term exposure to high levels of benzene can cause drowsiness, dizziness, unconsciousness, and death.
Benzene exposure can also affect the unborn children and offspring of workers who are exposed. High exposure to benzene during pregnancy is associated with low birth weight, an increased risk of childhood leukemia and a greater incidence of birth defects such as spina bifida. Benzene also crosses the human placenta and is found in human breast milk.
Along with plastics manufacturing and the oil and gas industry, people who work in labs, including medical or pharmaceutical research facilities, and those who work with paints are among those who are more likely to be exposed to benzene, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A new effort to measure the levels of benzene, a cancer-causing air pollutant, along the perimeters of U.S. refineries found that five of the 13 facilities with the highest levels are in Louisiana, according to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project, a national environmental nonprofit.
“Clearly we are in a calamitous situation here in Louisiana, with five refineries on this list,” Anne Rolfes, executive director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said to NOLA.com. “If you want to know why Louisiana leads so many of the bad lists for health and wealth, look no further than this.”
Common job titles in the plastics and petrochemical industries at risk of toxic exposure include:
- Chemical bath worker
- Chemical mixer
- Laboratory worker
- Machine operator
- Maintenance technician
- Preventative maintenance worker
- Process pipefitter
- Processing engineer
- Production operator
- Production technician
- Reactor operator