'Cancer Alley' Yields Bad News

Researchers find higher levels of dangerous chemical than expected in southeast Louisiana
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jun 11, 2024 9:06 AM CDT
Bad News From 'Cancer Alley'
An Aerodyne Mobile Laboratory staffed by researchers from Johns Hopkins University drives through St. James Parish, La., Feb. 9, 2023, to monitor air quality near industrial sites.   (Peter DeCarlo via AP)

Researchers using high-tech air monitoring equipment rolled through an industrialized stretch of southeast Louisiana in mobile labs and found levels of a carcinogen in concentrations as much as 10 times higher than previously estimated, according to a paper published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. As the AP reports, the study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University raises new health concerns for communities that sit among the chemical plants lining a stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans—dubbed "cancer alley" by environmentalists. The Environmental Protection Agency considers long-term exposure to inhaled ethylene oxide gas a cancer risk—a stance challenged by the chemical industry.

The study also heralds newer technologies that enable better, more accurate measurements. "The instrumentation technology that we have available to us is just much more sensitive and can be put on vans and driven around in ways that you don't get with regulatory instruments," said Pete DeCarlo, a researcher on the study. Ethylene oxide is used to make a main ingredient in antifreeze and polyester. It's also used to sterilize food, cosmetics, and medical equipment, and as a pesticide. Current regulatory figures on ethylene oxide levels are based on samples self-reported by the industry. Those numbers, DeCarlo said, are "anywhere from two to 10 times lower than the values that we measured with our mobile laboratory in Louisiana."

The Johns Hopkins study involved two vans that drove the same routes repeatedly over the course of a month last year. The vans used two different instruments to measure gases in real time, yet measured similar results, bolstering researchers' confidence. Nearly all readings were higher than 11 parts of ethylene oxide per 1 trillion parts of air—a level that translates to a one in 10,000 cancer risk for long-term exposure. That's the upper threshold of what the EPA considers acceptable.

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Sometimes levels were a thousand times higher—measured in parts per billion rather than per trillion. And, notes Keeve Nachman, another of the Johns Hopkins researchers, "When you think about all the other chemicals that are in play and all of the other concerns that we may have about people who live in Cancer Alley ... they may be less resilient to an exposure to ethylene oxide than someone in the general population." (More ethylene oxide stories.)

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