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Breathing as a Human Right: Cancer Alley as a Case Study of Environmental Racism

What’s in a name? Cancer Alley is a term coined to describe a region in southern Louisiana with high rates of cancer and other serious illnesses among its residents. Over 150 petrochemical plants and refineries live alongside these residents. As the health of the population deteriorates, residents call upon local and federal government leaders to regulate toxins from these factories, but their complaints fall on deaf ears.

Semira Mohamed | Cancer Alley is an 85-mile strip of land in southern Louisiana, home to over 150 petrochemical plants and refineries. This region derives its name from the strikingly high cancer rates among its predominately low-income, African-American residents. Despite complaints from residents and healthcare officials, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) have failed to adequately respond to their concerns by regulating chloroprene emissions from the Denka Performance Elastomer plant, which is highly suspected to be the source of illness. By neglecting their regulatory responsibilities to Cancer Alley residents, the EPA and LDEQ have manufactured a public health crisis that has cost countless lives.

Cancer Alley is an 85-mile strip of land in southern Louisiana with strikingly high incidences of cancer among its residents. Cancer Alley is home to more than 150 petrochemical plants and refineries that emit toxic pollutants into the air. Denka Performance Elastomer, a rubber manufacturer, owns one of these petrochemical plants in St. John the Baptist Parish. Denka's rubber manufacturing process results in chloroprene emitting from their plants. These emissions have been linked to higher incidences of cancer and other serious illnesses among St. John the Baptist Parish residents; however, Denka, backed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has denied these claims. This paper explores the potential of a direct relationship between chloroprene emissions and incidences of illness in Cancer Alley. I argue that exposure to chloroprene at the levels present in Cancer Alley puts residents at greater risk of developing serious illnesses, including cancer. Ultimately, this paper advances the notion that policy-makers are more willing to compromise the health and wellbeing of low-income Black and Brown communities than white communities.


Chloroprene–or 2-chloro-1, 3butadiene–refers is a "chlorinated hydrocarbon monomer," characterized as a "volatile, synthetic liquid" used in the manufacture of latexes and synthetic rubbers. Chloroprene is a commonly used petrochemical that is instrumental in producing polychloroprene, otherwise known as Neoprene. Synthesizing chloroprene involves "a two-step process consisting of a chlorination of 1,3-butadiene to 3,4-dichloro-1-butene, with subsequent caustic dehydrochlorination to 2-chloro-1-3-butadiene." Denka Performance Elastomer manufactures Neoprene, and as a result of this process, chloroprene is emitted from its factories.

The EPA has classified chloroprene as a likely carcinogen after a series of studies established links between exposure to chloroprene and the development of liver and lung cancers. Chloroprene has many structural similarities to known carcinogens such as 1,3-butadiene. Additionally, the EPA found evidence of chloroprene engaging in a mutagenic mode of action that would form cancerous tumors in humans. The National Toxicology Programconducted experiments examining chloroprene as a carcinogenic agent in laboratory rats and mice. Researchers observed that there were statistically significant increases in tumor formation among the mice when they were exposed to chloroprene emissions and that higher levels of exposure indicated earlier tumor development.

Because of its harmful effects, the EPA recommends that chloroprene emissions do not exceed more than 0.2 μg/m3. In the home of the Denka Performance Elastomer plant, emissions far exceed the EPA's recommended guidelines. A 2021 study of chloroprene emissions in Cancer Alley found the mean chloroprene levels of samples tested was 0.7 μg/m3, over three times EPA recommended guidelines, and the health of residents reflects this reality. One article explains, "cancer, skin rashes, and respiratory problems are rampant. It has become normal for kids to go to school with respirators and for the local newspaper's obituary section to be filled with reports of infant death." Residents of Cancer Alley have a risk of cancer that is roughly forty-six individuals per one million as opposed to the national average of thirty individuals per one million. A 2021 study found that St. John the Baptist Parish residents reported higher than likely incidences of cancer and other health conditions associated with chloroprene exposure, such as respiratory irritation and cardiac palpitations. Despite these statistics, Denka Performance Elastomer maintains that its factory has nothing to do with residents' poor health.

(“Chemical Plants” Image courtesy of St. Gil, Mar. Public Domain)


Environmental justice advocates view Cancer Alley as a microcosm of a broader phenomenon called environmental racism. Environmental racism is "the use of racist practices in determining which communities receive health-protective infrastructure, such as green space, and which receive health-harming highways and industrial complexes." Hazardous waste disposal sites, landfills, and petrochemical plants tend to be located in proximity to or within low-income Black and Brown communities because these communities often lack the political and economic capital to oppose these decisions. As a result, these toxic facilities are established, and the health of the communities they occupy is compromised. Due to Cancer Alley's large population of low-income African-Americans, experts in sociology, such as Willie Jamaal Wright, argue that government officials are less receptive to their health complaints, and many Cancer Alley residents agree.

One resident, Robert Taylor, whom The Guardian interviewed, said, "the petrochemical industry and human beings cannot live and operate side by side, so they have decided they're OK with just wiping us out, especially because of the fact that this is a poor black population. We were the lowest-hanging fruit." Robert Taylor's wife was diagnosed with cancer, and his daughter has a rare intestinal condition called gastroparesis. Both of their health conditions have been linked to their chloroprene exposure. In this interview, Taylor expresses how the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) and the EPA, two regulatory bodies tasked with regulating emissions to protect public health, have neglected their responsibilities to Cancer Alley residents.

So why does Denka Performance Elastomer have so much power? According to a study conducted by the Louisiana Chemical Association, sales from the chemical sector of Louisiana's economy bring in nearly $80 billion in revenue annually. The chemical industry provides 2 out of 7 jobs in the state. As a result, the Louisiana State government enforces minimal regulation and provides the industry with significant tax cuts. Cancer Alley residents lack the financial and political power to fight against this big corporate power, and thus as resident Mary Hampton explains, "[Cancer Alley residents] just live with it."


The response, or rather lack of response, to the catastrophic state of public health in Cancer Alley, is arguably one of the most egregious examples of environmental racism in the United States. By failing to regulate chloroprene emissions from the Denka Performance Elastomer plant, the EPA and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality have manufactured a health crisis that compromised countless lives. Cancer Alley is an example of how marginalized people bear the brunt of humanity's destruction of the environment. However, with the exacerbation of the climate crisis, the future of everyone's air quality is at risk if policy-makers fail to protect the human right to breathe clean air. Air pollution, such as chloroprene emitted from Denka's factories, is linked to climate change, so as petrochemical plants and landfills continue to emit toxins into the air, the threat to everyone's ability to breathe grows. Cancer Alley is one striking and devastating case of humanity's mistreatment of Earth, but it may not be too long before those more privileged will also experience the consequences of this mistreatment. Writer's Reflection:

While issues of the environment have recently come to the fore as the climate crisis has exacerbated, African Americans have for decades been exposed to environmental hazards within their communities. I wrote this paper to understand how and why regulatory bodies fail to protect Black communities. Writing this paper, I learned that environmental racism is tied to neglect and gaslighting. Low-income communities of color are not justly protected by the regulatory bodies tasked with doing so. The sources I examined were primarily peer-reviewed journal articles that highlight the dangers of chloroprene exposure and define environmental racism. These articles framed the piece from the Guardian that interviews directly-impacted residents who gave insight into the human impact of the public health crisis in Cancer Alley. This paper is limited by my focus on one chemical, chloroprene, emitted from one petrochemical plant, the Denka Performance Elastomer plant. There are other impacted communities in Cancer Alley beyond St. John the Baptist Parish residents.


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