Waiting to Die: Toxic Emissions and Disease Near the Louisiana Denka/DuPont Plant
Three years ago, residents living near a chemical plant in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana were told by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that they faced the highest risk in the country of developing cancer from air pollution.
St. John Parish is part of an area of Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley,” an 85-mile stretch of land along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. More than 150 chemical plants and oil refineries dot this stretch of land, where most communities are predominantly Black and many residents attribute seemingly staggering levels of cancer and other illness to toxic air emissions from industry.
The St. John plant’s neoprene manufacturing unit—owned by DuPont until its sale to Japanese company Denka Performance Elastomer in November 2015—has been pumping the toxic chemical chloroprene into a predominantly Black community since 1969. Residents had long felt that there was too much illness in the area—far beyond what could be considered normal. One resident with whom we spoke recalled the words of her niece, shortly before she passed away of cancer: “We’re just sitting here, waiting to die.”
The EPA’s 2011 National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA), released in December 2015, seemed to confirm many residents’ suspicions. According to the most recent NATA, the risk of developing cancer from air pollution in the census tract closest to the Denka neoprene facility is nearly 50 times the national average due to emissions of chloroprene, classified by the EPA as a “likely human carcinogen.” The EPA advocates a significant reduction in chloroprene emissions from the Denka facility, such that air concentration of the chemical does not exceed 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m³)—the maximum concentration that would keep cancer risk from air pollution within the EPA’s “upper limit of acceptability.”
For the past three years, community members have demanded a reduction of chloroprene emissions to this EPA-recommended maximum level of 0.2 µg/m³. Their struggle for environmental justice has gained increasing traction and national media coverage.
Although the EPA has affirmed its confidence in the scientific validity of its chloroprene assessment—stating that the assessment “was developed using a robust, transparent, and public process and represents the Agency’s top tier source of toxicity information on chloroprene”—Denka continues to challenge the EPA’s findings on chloroprene toxicity.
Denka signed a voluntary agreement to reduce emissions in January 2017 and finished installing emissions reduction technology by the end of that year, but the EPA’s air monitoring data continues to show high levels of chloroprene emissions—well in excess of the 0.2 µg/m³ guideline—in the neighborhoods around the Denka facility.
This report by the University Network for Human Rights presents localized health data from the area surrounding the Denka/DuPont plant. In March 2018, a team of trained researchers collected health data from a large sample of residents who live within 2.5 kilometers of the plant. Below, we present our in-depth analysis of this household health survey data. Our data reveal extremely improbable rates of cancer and other illness among residents surveyed. We also found that prevalence of cancer and other illness among our survey sample is correlated with proximity to the Denka plant, with higher rates of illness closer to the plant.
Cancer prevalence among those surveyed is unusually high. Among respondents (those who provided health information about themselves and all their household members), the p-value for cancer prevalence when compared to a distribution of populations with the same race, sex, and age demographics is 0.6% (very statistically significant). In other words, the probability of the 9.7% cancer prevalence outcome that we found among respondents—the likelihood that we would see a cancer prevalence this high or higher in a population with the same race, sex, and age composition—is only 0.6%.
Among all residents surveyed (respondents plus all their household members, i.e. everyone for whom we collected information), the p-value for cancer prevalence is 3.43% (statistically significant).
Cancer prevalence among those surveyed is also associated strongly with proximity to the Denka facility. The p-value for cancer prevalence among respondents who live closest to the facility (within 1.5 kilometers) is 0.26% (very statistically significant). The p-value for cancer prevalence among residents who live closest to the facility (within 1.5 kilometers) is 0.33% (very statistically significant).
Prevalence of non-cancer health conditions associated with chloroprene exposure is also striking and invariably correlated with proximity to the plant. Nearly half the children in the households surveyed within 1.5 kilometers of the plant suffer from headaches, nosebleeds, or both. P-values for tachycardia (abnormally fast heart rate) diagnosed by a doctor or other health care provider are 0% for both respondents and residents, indicating a virtual impossibility that high tachycardia prevalence among the survey sample was due to chance.
Among respondents surveyed within 1.5 kilometers of the plant: nearly 40% regularly experience chest pain, heart palpitations, or both; one-third regularly experience wheezing and/or difficulty breathing; more than half regularly experience headaches, dizziness, and/or lightheadedness; nearly half regularly experience eye pain/irritation and/or watery eyes; more than 40% experience cough, sneezing, and/or sore/hoarse throat most of the time; more than one-third regularly experience skin rash/irritation and/or itchy skin; and nearly 30% experience fatigue/lethargy most of the time.
Overall, our findings strongly indicate that prevalence of cancer and other illness among residents surveyed is unusually high compared to what we would expect using national actuarial tables. These results are disturbing enough to warrant additional in-depth, localized, and rigorous health studies in the area surrounding the Denka/DuPont plant and throughout Cancer Alley.
In the meantime, local, state, and federal agencies—including the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the Louisiana Department of Health—must insist that Denka Performance Elastomer adhere to the EPA’s 0.2 µg/m³ guideline for maximum chloroprene air concentration.
 Trymaine Lee, Cancer Alley: Big Industry, Big Problems, MSNBC, http://www.msnbc.com/interactives/geography-of-poverty/se.html.
 Denka Co. Ltd. owns 70% of Denka Performance Elastomer, and Mitsui Co. Ltd. owns 30%.
 United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment, https://www.epa.gov/national-air-toxics-assessment/2014-national-air-toxics-assessment.
 Memorandum from Kelly Rimer to Frances Verhalen, Preliminary Risk-Based Concentration Value for Chloroprene in Ambient Air, United States Environmental Protection Agency (May 5, 2016), https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-06/documents/memo-prelim-risk-based-concentrations050516.pdf.
 See, e.g., Sharon Lerner, When Pollution is a Matter of Life and Death, New York Times (June 22, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/22/opinion/sunday/epa-carniogens.html; Jamiles Lartey and Oliver Laughland, ‘Almost every household has someone that has died from cancer,’ The Guardian (May 6, 2019), https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2019/may/06/cancertown-louisana-reserve-special-report; Rebecca Hersher, After Decades of Air Pollution, A Louisiana Town Rebels Against A Chemical Giant, NPR (Mar. 6, 2018), https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/03/06/583973428/after-decades-of-air-pollution-a-louisiana-town-rebels-against-a-chemical-giant; Victor Blackwell et al., Toxic tensions in the heart of ‘Cancer Alley,’ CNN (Oct. 20, 2017), https://www.cnn.com/2017/10/20/health/louisiana-toxic-town/index.html.
 Memorandum from John Vandenberg to Wren Stenger, EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) Assessment of Chloroprene, United States Environmental Protection Agency (May 25, 2016), https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-06/documents/memo-iris-chloroprene052516.pdf.
 Letter from Koki Tabuchi to Scott Pruitt, Request to Withdraw and Correct the 2010 IRIS Review of Chloroprene (June 26, 2017), https://www.scribd.com/embeds/408326975/content?start_page=1&view_mode=scroll&access_key=key-pMd8zNOfLwIOotdRyQXN&show_recommendations=false.
 P-values are generally expressed as decimals rather than percentages (0.006 rather than 0.6%, for example). Throughout this report, we express p-values as percentages because they are conceptually easier for the layperson to understand this way. P-values less than 5% (0.05) are considered statistically significant.