A new academic study has yielded troubling findings, especially for a small Louisiana town. The University Network for Human Rights (UNHR) released a report this Wednesday that revealed that residents of Reserve, LA have been diagnosed with cancer at “highly unusual” rates.
Reserve has been the focus of an investigative series conducted by The Guardian, entitled "Cancer Town." Journalists examined the rates of disease in chronic illness in Reserve and other small Louisiana towns lying in the area between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. This area of the country has been referred to as 'Cancer Alley' due to a concentration of toxic pollution from petrochemical factories.
In the town of Reserve, such pollution primarily comes from the Pontchartrain Works facility, the only location in the country which manufactures the synthetic rubber neoprene. One of the primary components of neoprene, chloroprene, is classified by the US government as "likely to be carcinogenic to humans.". It is considered toxic, not only possibly cancer-causing, but also capable of causing damage to skin, lungs, kidneys, liver, blood cells, the central nervous system and presents a threat to fetuses.
UNHR researchers found that 10.5% of respondents in the area immediately surrounding Pontchartrain Works had been diagnosed with cancer, even after removing households with frequent cigarette smokers from the analysis. This rate was described by the researchers as “extremely improbable.” Findings were separated into two zones, one compromising a circle of homes closest to the plant, and an outer ring of households farther away. Those in the 'inner' zone experienced an even higher rate of cancer diagnosis, at 12.4%. To contrast, a segment of the U.S. population of the same race, sex, and age composition as the one studied would experience an average diagnosis rate of 7%.
The plant's operator and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality maintain that community emissions from the Pontchartrain Works pose no threat to the surrounding community. UNHR researchers, on the other hand, are urging officials to conduct more in-depth studies of the health status of individuals living in this geographic region.
Environmental injuries can be incredibly complex. Symptoms may take years to develop, and, once they do, it can be difficult to trace back to the root cause. Victims of environmental injuries may have recourse in the legal system. An incredibly high-profile environmental injury settlement involved Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) and the town of Hinkley, CA. PG&E dumped wastewater contaminated with hexavalent chromium into pounds surrounding the town for decades. Citizens of Hinkley experienced clusters of illness, including high rates of cancer, which they believed were related to the hexavalent chromium infiltrating their water supply. PG&E settled with the first group of plaintiffs in 1996 for $333 million, which was, at the time, the largest settlement of a direct-action lawsuit in U.S. history.