What is Cancer Alley?
Cancer Alley sounds like such a morbid term that it is often mistaken as a figure of speech or a hyperbole. Unfortunately, that is not the case; the term Cancer Alley does in fact refer to a specific region within the United States. In the state of Louisiana, along the Mississippi River, there is an approximately 85 mile stretch of land reaching from New Orleans to Baton Rouge that has been dubbed as “Cancer Alley.” According to the EPA, a person living in this region is 95 percent more likely to get cancer from air pollution than the average American.
This region has become an industrial juggernaut lined with numerous petrochemical and ethylene plants within close proximity of one another that constantly spurt toxic plumes into the skies and ooze hazardous liquids into the nearby river laced with the stench of rotten eggs. There are as many as 30 of these plants within 10 miles of one another. These unfathomably high concentrations of plants result in a disproportionate amount of illnesses due to all the toxins. One of the most drastic examples is when a Condea Vista plant reported over ninety accidental chemical spills in Lake Charles from 1997 to 2000, discharging somewhere between an estimated 19 to 47 million pounds of ethylene dichloride, a known human carcinogen. In the past decade, the story of Cancer Alley has gained much attention in the media and thus there have been many efforts to mitigate the region’s immense pollution, however the problem still persists and continues to grow today.
The town of St. Gabriel is located in the heart of Cancer Alley. Residents of this town have long suffered from all the adverse effects of the nearby plants, ranging from finding dead birds in their lawns, to watching yellow rain fall from the sky, and even becoming desensitized to the frequent news of their fellow neighbors suffering from miscarriages and being diagnosed with cancer. Such horrible living conditions should never be acceptable, yet this has been the reality for Americans living in this region for decades. A current hospital receptionist and resident of St. Gabriel, Terry Frazier, told a ProPublica reporter, “Out of every 10 houses, there’s a prospect of one or two people that have died of cancer.” She goes on to recount the long list of family members and friends from St. Gabriel that battled with and lost their fight against cancer. Unfortunately, Frazier’s personal account can be corroborated by some even more astonishing statistics on the region’s cancer rates. Studies have confirmed that the region has significantly higher cancer rates, specifically for stomach and lung cancer, as Louisiana saw an average of 237.4 deaths per 100,000 people, while the national average was 206 deaths per 100,000 people.
We haven’t nearly finished discussing all the problems found in Cancer Alley. Beneath this title lies an even more horrifying phenomenon: environmental racism. The majority of Cancer Alley residents are Black Americans who disproportionately make up the ill population of the region. In addition, the region has some of the highest unemployment rates in the state, despite there being an abundance of plants nearby.
As a new global pandemic hits the world, we can clearly see how Louisiana’s Cancer Alley has taken one of the biggest hits nationwide, and the region’s high cancer rates has everything to do with that.
Evidently, Cancer Alley has become a region with a whirlwind of serious issues. The large population with serious pre-existing medical conditions and low income families of color are only exacerbated by the pandemic and makes this region particularly vulnerable. As a new global pandemic hits the world, we can clearly see how Louisiana’s Cancer Alley has taken one of the biggest hits nationwide, and the region’s high cancer rates has everything to do with that.
We haven’t nearly finished discussing all the problems found in Cancer Alley. Beneath this title lies an even more horrifying phenomenon: environmental racism. The majority of Cancer Alley residents are black Americans who disproportionately make up the ill population of the region. In addition, the region has some of the highest unemployment rates in the state, despite there being an abundance of plants nearby. Evidently, Cancer Alley has become a region with a whirlwind of serious issues. The large population with serious pre-existing medical conditions and low income families of color are only exacerbated by the pandemic, and makes this region particularly vulnerable. As a new global pandemic hits the world, we can clearly see how Louisiana’s Cancer Alley has taken one of the biggest hits nationwide, and the region’s high cancer rates has everything to do with that.
How susceptible are Cancer Patients to COVID?
According to the CDC, cancer patients have been classified as an “at risk” group to COVID-19, meaning they face an increased risk of serious illness from viruses. Cancer patients are especially susceptible to this virus due to the wide range of treatments they undergo, the two most common being chemotherapy and radiation.
These treatments result in the patients having extremely weak immune systems, or immunosuppression, and thus they are not able to effectively fight off viruses, especially without proper resources and care. Specifically, chemotherapy often leads to neutropenia, a condition where patients exhibit very low levels of neutrophils- a type of white blood cell- resulting in the immune system to be extremely deficient. Both targeted radiation therapy and total body irradiation have also been noted to lower the overall white blood cell counts severely in patients, making it difficult to overcome even the flu. In fact, researchers have found that there is a 13-28% mortality rate of cancer patients who contract COVID-19, while the overall mortality rate for a cancer patient is significantly lower at about 1%. Clearly, COVID is much more virulent and aggressive in its attack to the immune system of cancer patients compared to the average person.
These are just the physiological effects the virus directly has on existing cancer patients. However, COVID is even hurting patients who don’t even know they have cancer yet. Cancer doesn’t stop just because COVID ravaged the world. As COVID cases began to rise, more routine and essential procedures, such as cancer screening, were halted. This delays diagnosis, progression check-ups, and effective treatment implementation. A study in the UK found a 15.3-16.6% increase in lung cancer mortality rates alone since this past March due to delays in diagnosis and ultimately treatment. Not only is this pandemic taking a huge hit on the immune system of cancer patients, but it is also jeopardizing their routine diagnosis, treatment, and overall care.
How has COVID been in Cancer Alley?
As suspected, COVID-19 has unfortunately infiltrated the Cancer Alley region, and is hitting residents hard. In fact, Cancer Alley has been noted to have some of the highest coronavirus death rates in the country. This is unsurprising given the large high-risk population. Ridden with numerous serious pre-existing illnesses, such as cancer, the population of Cancer Alley was too weak to take another hit, and now the community is on the verge of crumbling. There are so many enormous problems that need to be fixed right away before the community diminishes. But where do we start?
Undeniably, there are several links in the chain leading to the high cancer and high COVID-19 mortality rates in the region. An integral link that needs to be broken in this horrendous chain is air pollution. As we previously mentioned, Cancer Alley is notorious for its high contention of plants that constantly emit toxic substances into the atmosphere. A recent Harvard study found that exposure to PM 2.5, a common air pollutant, leads to a significant increase in the COVID-19 mortality rate. Another issue that is often overlooked in the healthcare and medical community is socioeconomic status and ethnicity. The majority of Cancer Alley residents are low income families of color and victims of environmental racism. A staggering statistic from the Louisiana governor himself, John Edwards, reveals that over 70% of COVID related deaths in Louisiana are of Black citizens, while they only account for 32% of Louisiana’s population. As Cancer Alley lies in the heart of Louisiana, it’s easy to see the realities of inequality on public safety and health. As John Balms, a professor of medicine and environmental health in the University of California puts it, “Disadvantaged communities of color we know have greater exposure to air pollution on average than wealthier white communities.”
What is being done and what can you do?
Currently, organizations such as RISE St.James are working to stop additional plants from being constructed in the region. Working in conjunction with such organizations would be a great way to try and mitigate the air pollution issue that has been a root cause in yielding the population to be so vulnerable.
There are also several Black activists such as Sharon Lavigne, who is standing up against the environmental racism and inequity residents of the region are facing. Last year, Lavigne led a march through St. James, Louisiana calling for action against all the toxic emissions plants were producing. Lavigne told reporters, “They promised us jobs. Instead they pollute us with these plants, like we’re not human beings, like we’re not even people. They’re killing us. And that is why I am fighting.”
“They promised us jobs. Instead they pollute us with these plants, like we’re not human beings, like we’re not even people. They’re killing us. And that is why I am fighting.”
That is what you can do too. Fight. Raise awareness, donate, volunteer, and join the cause. Lowering cancer rates and reducing the medically vulnerable population isn’t a quick or easy task. Start with what we can do at first. We can work towards reducing the toxic emissions and pollution in the area, and help to create better paying jobs to uplift the community. In time, this will help create a healthier and safer environment for residents. While lowering the staggeringly high cancer rates and COVID-19 mortality rates may seem like a daunting task at first, they too can be eradicated.
Edited by Blair Hoeting