March 4, 2024

Newborns living in the worst-polluted areas of Louisiana, including an 85-mile industrial corridor known as “Cancer Alley”, experience low birth weights at more than three times the national average, according to data cited in a report released Thursday. The rate of preterm births there is also twice the national average, researchers found.

In parts of Louisiana near fossil fuel and petrochemical plants, low birth weight rates reached 27% and preterm births rates 25%, according to research from Tulane University that was published in a Human Rights Watch report on Thursday. The full paper linking pollution and reproductive health is currently under peer review for publication in the journal Environmental Research: Health.

“The level of human health crisis is identifiable and preventable,” said Antonia Juhasz, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and the report’s lead author. Juhasz and her colleagues interviewed dozens of residents of Louisiana’s petrochemical region known as Cancer Alley, a string of predominantly Black communities between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that is home to more than 200 petrochemical plants. The region has one of the highest pollution-related cancer rates in the country.

Residents interviewed for the report described a host of ailments, including breast, prostate and liver cancers, in addition to several accounts of reproductive problems including preterm births, miscarriage and stillbirths.

The region’s high cancer rates are well documented, but experts said new information on birth outcomes was alarming.

“When you cluster all the pollution together, you can see the most extreme [health] consequences,” said Kimberly Terrell, director of community engagement at Tulane’s Environmental Law Clinic and one of the forthcoming report’s authors. “Cancer Alley is a place where those consequences can’t be ignored.”

Low birth weight and preterm birth can carry several longterm health problems, including respiratory illnesses like asthma, as well as behavioral and cognitive issues.

Shamell Lavigne was born and raised in St James Parish, midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. She struggled with infertility and when she did finally get pregnant in 2014, she suffered a miscarriage.

“When I found out that there was a connection between reproductive health and pollution throughout Cancer Alley, I knew it was important to share what happened to me and [talk about] the impact the industry is having on Black women,” Lavigne said. She now has a nine-year-old daughter, who passes by an ExxonMobil plant every day on the drive to school.

“In St James she’s surrounded by chemical plants, and even at school she’s in proximity to them,” Lavigne said. “It’s almost like you can’t escape it.” The neighboring St John the Baptist Parish has a cancer risk nearly seven times the national average.

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The report comes as local and federal officials weigh the future of fossil fuel and petrochemical industries in the region. On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that the Biden administration was pausing approval of Calcasieu Pass 2, a proposed massive gas terminal that residents and experts said would contribute to the region’s public health issues. The news comes days after a Louisiana court upheld an approval for air permits for Formosa Plastics, which would bring forth the largest petrochemical complexes of its kind in the US. That decision was a major blow for environmentalists and rights groups, who advocate for the removal of existing fossil fuel plants and a moratorium on new ones.

Such moves could bring quick relief to local residents, experts say. In the Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco, California, researchers found that the rate of preterm births fell by as much as 25% in the year following the 2006 closure of a coal plant.

“That is a really strong argument for removing coal power plants from close proximity to residents,” said Nathaniel DeNicola, an OB-GYN specialist who co-authored a 2020 report linking exposure to air pollution and preterm births. “This suggests that you can, to some degree, protect communities by being far away from the concentrated toxic source.”

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