Cancer Alley, Louisiana, USA Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Cancer Alley, Louisiana, USA

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The name Cancer Alley, often used by unhappy locals and other concerned citizens, refers to the area along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. Here over a hundred chemical and oil companies have set up along the river, often near poor and/or minority communities.

The Problem

For the industries of Cancer Alley, the Mississippi River provides convenience in transportation of materials and products, and the Louisiana state government provides tax breaks. The swarm of industries to this prime area creates a few jobs for locals. It also creates pollution.

Those most often at risk are citizens living in small, low-income, predominantly African-American communities. Residents in these areas suffer disproportionate exposure to the environmental hazards that come with living near chemical waste. Cases of rare cancers are reported in these communities in numbers far above the national average. For example, in the town of Gonzales, Louisiana (population 18,000), 3 cases of rhabdomyosarcoma, an extremely rare and devastating childhood cancer, were reported in a 14 month period. The US national average of rhabdomyosarcoma cases is one child out of a million. In addition to cancer, residents suffer increased health problems including asthma, neurological disease and stillbirths. There is also the discomfort of living near towering flare vents which are noisy and occasionally explode.

The Louisiana Tumour Registry is responsible for providing reliable statistics on cancer rates; however, the Registry's methods have been questioned. The distribution of survey territory divides the entire Louisiana region, sparsely populated swamps and all, into districts which make it impossible to monitor specific communities. In addition, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality is suspected of acting in the best interests of industry.

What is Being Done

In the past several decades, an 'Environmental Justice' movement has arisen to respond to problems such as these. This is an area of environmental concern which many mainstream environmental organizations fail to deal with, since in these cases the victims are human beings rather than endangered wildlife. Organizations including the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (which provides threatened residents with equipment for taking air samples) have been formed to help communities defend themselves against becoming victims of industry. The recent success of the residents of Convent, Louisiana in preventing the building of a Shintech polyvinyl plant gives some hope. Coinciding with this victory, however, was the company's announcement of plans to build a smaller plant 25 miles away, near the town of Plaquemine.

At this point there is still controversy over whether chemical waste and other pollution play a significant role in causing human cancer. Some studies (those performed by the Tumour Registry, for example) show that the cancer rate in Cancer Alley is merely comparable or in fact lower than the national average. Perhaps petrochemical waste is actually good for you. Why not?


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