85-mile stretch in Louisiana known as ‘Cancer Alley’ sees rates of disease and birth defects up to SEVEN TIMES the national average in its 1.5million population

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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  • Residents blame their illnesses on pollution from the area’s chemical plants
  • People here have a cancer risk of seven times the national average
  • READ MORE:  EXCL: America’s ‘cancer road’ – a two-mile stretch in Minnesota

Along an 85-mile stretch of road in Louisiana, residents have seven times the cancer risk than the national average, have been diagnosed with chronic health conditions and babies are born underweight at three times the national average. 

This road between Baton Rouge and New Orleans – on the banks of the Mississippi River – has been dubbed ‘Cancer Alley’ and the people with houses along it blame the high rates of illnesses on the place they live.

The area is home to approximately 200 fossil fuel and petrochemical operations – the largest concentration of these facilities in the western hemisphere.

Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch published a report detailing the high rates of disease in the area, which residents have referred to as ‘death row.’

Along an 85-mile stretch of road in Louisiana , residents have seven times the cancer risk than the national average

Janice Ferchaud, 66, underwent a mastectomy after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She attributed her cancer, and the deaths of family members, to the pollution given off from the plants

Janice Ferchaud, 66, underwent a mastectomy after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She attributed her cancer, and the deaths of family members, to the pollution given off from the plants

Kaitlyn Joshua, who lives in Ascension parish, has suffered from chronic asthma since childhood

Kaitlyn Joshua, who lives in Ascension parish, has suffered from chronic asthma since childhood

The report accuses state and federal regulators of failing to properly monitor the industry and says the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality has yet to address the dangers of fossil fuels and does not enforce the minimum standards set by the government to protect the environment and human health.

Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not monitored if Louisiana is complying with laws and mandates – and as a result is failing to protect the environment and local residents. 

For years, residents along the road have suffered from higher rates of cancer, reproductive, maternal and newborn health complications, as well as respiratory illnesses. 

The HRW report found the area in the US with the highest risk of cancer due to industrial air pollution – more than seven times the national average – is located in Cancer Alley.

Babies here are born underweight at three times the national average and are born prematurely at 2.5 times the national average. 

HRW focused on nine parishes in Cancer Alley: Ascension, East Baton Rouge, Iberville, Jefferson, Orleans, St. Charles, St. James, St. John the Baptist and West Baton Rouge.

Together, these are home to more than 1.56million people.

Sharon Lavigne, 71, lives in Welcome, a community in St James Parish, about one hour west of New Orleans along the 85-mile stretch. 

An industrial plant in Louisiana¿s Cancer Alley, which has the highest concentration of such facilities in the western hemisphere

An industrial plant in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, which has the highest concentration of such facilities in the western hemisphere

She told HRW: ‘We’re dying from inhaling the industries’ pollution. I feel like it’s a death sentence. Like we are getting cremated, but not getting burnt.’

Nearby, 66-year-old Janice Ferchaud underwent a mastectomy after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She told HRW she wants people to know what the residents of Cancer Alley are experiencing. 

Ms Ferchaud attributed her cancer, and the deaths of family members, to the pollution given off from the plants. 

Robert Taylor, 83, also a resident along Cancer Alley, spoke of the ‘dozens’ of family members and friends, including his wife and mother, who have been diagnosed with or died from cancer. 

Along with neighbors’ stories of prostate, liver and breast cancer, mothers spoke about stillbirths, infertility, childhood asthma, bronchitis and chronic sinus infections. 

Kaitlyn Joshua, who lives in Ascension parish and has suffered from chronic asthma since childhood, told HRW that her doctor said: ‘Kaitlyn, it’s where you live. It’s the air quality. You’re going to have to move out of there.’

Also from Ascension Parish, Dominic Kruger said: ‘Everybody’s sick and dying and it just keeps getting worse.’ 

Angie Roberts, 57 years old from St James, has lived in the area for 28 years. In 2019, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. Recently, her doctor found lumps in her other breast and she developed the autoimmune disorder multiple sclerosis. 

Fossil fuel and petrochemical emissions can increase the risk of autoimmune diseases like MS, according to the report. 

Ms Roberts said: ‘Who would want to live here now? I’m dying here.’ 

Parents also told HRW of keeping their children home from school and indoors because of poor air quality. 

Louisiana’s Cancer Alley is far from the only area where residents are at risk.

A Clean Air Task Force report in 2022 found nearly 14 million people in US were at a heightened risk for cancer as a result of toxic pollutants. 

Those people across 236 counties in 21 states face a cancer risk exceeding the EPA’s one-in-a-million threshold ‘level of concern.’

In 33 counties, the cancer risk exceeds one-in-250,000 and in three, that risk is one-in-100,000

Breast Cancer Action added that when females are exposed to cancer-causing chemicals and hormone-disrupting chemicals, it can influence their risk of breast cancer, especially when exposed during crucial development times, such as puberty. 

A 2021 Harvard study found more than 8million people died in 2018 as a result from fossil fuel pollution, accounting for 18 percent of worldwide deaths. 

And, according to the World Health Organization, people who are exposed to air pollution are more likely to suffer from stoke, heart disease, lung cancer, respiratory infections and a myriad of other illnesses. 

WHO reported that environmental air pollution and household air pollution is associated with 7million premature deaths every year. 

For the report, HRW researchers focused on emissions from plants near playgrounds, schools, senior homes, residences, farms and businesses.

Researchers spoke to 37 residents along Cancer Alley between September 2022 and January 2024.  

Antonia Juhasz, senior fossil fuels researcher at HRW said: ‘The fossil fuel and petrochemical industry has created a “sacrifice zone” in Louisiana.

‘The failure of state and federal authorities to properly regulate the industry has dire consequences.’ 

In 2022, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment also called these areas in Louisiana ‘sacrifice zones’ and deemed them among the most polluted and hazardous places on Earth.

And at least 19 more facilities are planned for Cancer Alley. 

In just 2020, two-thirds of all Louisiana’s greenhouse emissions were produced by 150 plants in Cancer Alley. 

Following their findings, HRW researchers urged for local, state and federal authorities to support laws governing fossil fuel or petrochemical plants. 

Lawmakers should limit the areas where these facilities are built and require that their operators ‘implement practices and procedures that protect human rights of frontline communities, including by enacting and effectively enforcing regulations and taking immediate and comprehensive action to deter and remedy violations.’ 

Specifically in Louisiana, the report said the state’s Department of Environmental Quality should deny permits to build in communities that are already overburdened by pollution and the EPA should order the facilities to cease operations until they can adhere to standards set by the Clean Air Act. 

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