Families on the front lines of mining, drilling, and fracking need your help. Support them now!

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

New air monitoring research from John Hopkins University revealed that residents in a part of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley are being exposed to significantly greater amounts of a cancer-causing petrochemical than assumed in regulations and permitting decisions.

The peer-reviewed study used a suite of cutting-edge measurement tools in a mobile laboratory to provide the first measures of how much ethylene oxide is emitted by plastic producers. The research showed levels more than nine times higher than pollution modeling used by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ). 

Ethylene oxide is a volatile organic compound used to create commercial chemicals (called “petrochemicals”) that make products like single-use plastic bags and plastic bottles. Ethylene oxide is extremely carcinogenic, and chronic exposure is associated with a variety of cancers, including leukemia, myeloma, lymphoma, and breast cancer. 

Cancer Alley is the name given to the 85-mile stretch of land along the Mississippi River in Louisiana between Baton Rouge and New Orleans because of its high concentration of industrial plants. These facilities—which operate in predominantly Black communities—are allowed to release toxic air pollutants known to cause a range of elevated health risks, including maternal, reproductive, and newborn health harms, cancer, and respiratory ailments. Parts of Cancer Alley have the highest risk of cancer from industrial air pollution in the United States. 

Despite Louisianans organizing to fight against new corporate polluters in their communities, a wave of enormous new petrochemical facilities is taking shape along the Mississippi River corridor. Seven large new petrochemical facilities and expansions have been approved for places in the river corridor since 2015, according to air-permit files from the LDEQ. Five more major projects—including Formosa’s megacomplex in St. James that would emit 7.5 million pounds of additional ethylene oxide to the airshed every year—are awaiting approval.

The EPA currently estimates health risks by relying on emissions data from local and state environmental agencies, like LDEQ, which in turn often rely on industry self-reported estimates and not direct measurements. Peter DeCarlo, lead researcher of the report and an associate professor of Environmental Health and Engineering who studies air quality, said accurate measurements of ethylene oxide are needed to understand exposure and cancer risks for communities near to petrochemical facilities.

“Because the measured values of ethylene oxide greatly exceeded modeled value, we encourage state, local, and federal agencies to prioritize accurate emissions data to properly estimate risks to communities and protect public health and the climate—in Cancer Alley and beyond,” DeCarlo said.

Tell Citi: Don’t Invest in Environmental Racism

Citi, the world’s second largest funder of fossil fuel projects, could be asked to finance a $12 billion petrochemical plant in St. James Parish, Louisiana.