Louisiana’s struggle against Covid-19

Cancer Alley
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Air pollution in Louisiana’s 'Cancer Alley' linked to high Covid-19 death rates.

Meandering alongside the Mississippi River, this predominantly rural landscape is dotted with a dense concentration of chemical plants and factories. Smoke and smog billow into the sky.

Cancer Alley, a heavily industrialised area in Southeast Louisiana comprised of primarily African American and low-income communities, has long been infamous for its high pollution levels.

The hazardous levels of air pollution found in the area may be partially to blame for its high concentration of Covid-19 deaths, which are among the highest in the nation, a recent study from the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic suggests. 

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Just two small communities in Cancer Alley, with a combined population of around 60,000, have seen more than 2,250 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 130 deaths so far, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. The area also has some of the highest levels of pollution in the state.

Pollution 

Researchers from Tulane University and the University of Memphis have been looking for a potential link. They studied the demographics of area residents to learn if they had higher levels of Covid-19 death risk factors, including diabetes, high levels of tobacco use, and obesity. Their results show residents did not have these risk factors at higher rates compared to others in the state.

With this information, the researchers pointed a finger at air pollution as one potential cause of the higher death rate from Covid-19 in the area.

Kimberly Terrell, director of community outreach at the law clinic and the study’s lead author, said a stark pattern emerged with residents in Cancer Alley clearly dealing with an overburden of air pollution and Covid-19.

Meandering alongside the Mississippi River, this predominantly rural landscape is dotted with a dense concentration of chemical plants and factories. Smoke and smog billow into the sky.

Terrel, the lead author, said: “I have been out there pretty regularly, and it is absolutely nuts. You drive through these areas and just from being there you get headaches. The air doesn’t smell the same. It doesn’t look the same as unpolluted places.”

Racial inequities

Satellite data shows emissions of air pollutants in this area that stretches from Baton Rouge to New Orleans on the rise from ongoing industrial expansion in recent years, a trend that is only expected to get worse as more plants continue to fill the corridor.

The communities of color residing in the region have long been overburdened with the accompanying toxic air pollution. Particularly high cancer and respiratory illness levels have put the area in the national spotlight.

Seven of the 10 US census areas with the nation’s highest cancer risks are found in this industrialized passageway, according to Environmental Protection Agency data.

Louisiana has also proven to be one of the most affected states as Covid-19 paralyzes much of the country. Like the state’s pollution problem, not all are affected equally.

As of May 2020, African Americans, who make up 33 percent of the state’s population, accounted for 56 percent of Covid-19 deaths in the state.

Covid-19

Health researchers have long known that air pollution can cause respiratory disease. Increased attention has now been given to looking at the association between prior exposure to air pollution and heightened vulnerability to Covid-19.

In April, researchers at Harvard found that locations across the country with high levels of industrial air pollution suffered increased death rates from Covid-19.

Terrell, through her work with the environmental law clinic, has worked closely with many of the communities in Cancer Alley for years. Early on in the pandemic, concerned citizens in the area came to her hungry for more information about this relationship between air pollution and Covid-19.

With the help of Wesley James, the study’s co-author and associate professor of sociology at the University of Memphis, Terrell set out to undertake a more localized investigation to better understand what the connection meant particularly for these vulnerable communities.

According to James: “Typically, what we are seeing is your racial and ethnic minority neighborhoods and lower socioeconomic areas are at greater risk. Some people have a lot of risks that are already built in compared to others.”

Death rates

By May 2020, eight of the ten parishes with the highest Covid-19 related death rates in Louisiana were located in Cancer Alley, with death rates hovering between three and six times the state’s average.

St. John the Baptist Parish lies in the center of this toxic corridor. In April 2020, it made headlines for having the highest per capita death rate from Covid-19 in the country.

Like in so many other facets of US society, the coronavirus pandemic has served to highlight the many inequalities ingrained in the country. The high Covid- 19 related death rates coming out of Caner Alley have shed a light on the nuanced manner health and environmental disparities affect communities of color in the area.

Both Terrell and James emphasized the importance for decision makers and public health officials to enact bold measures that reduce pollution in the area.

Although a grassroots movement advocating for environmental justice in Louisiana’s industrial corridor exists, the pandemic places urgency on the need to address this threatening issue.

Of the situation highlighted by the study, Terrell said: “Anybody who has been impacted by Covid knows how scary it is to question whether you can take a full breath. I really hope that people will look at this situation and realize that these communities of people have struggled to breathe for decades.”

This Author

Jordan Unger is a freelance journalist and graduate student in the journalism department at the University of Montana. He can be reached via email here.

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