Skip to main content

Press Release: Levels of Cancer-Causing Air Pollutant in Louisiana Are Exponentially Higher Than Previously Estimated

Levels of Cancer-Causing Air Pollutant in Louisiana Are Exponentially Higher Than Previously Estimated

Media Contact: Matt Smelser, matt@beyondpetrochemicals.org, 512-739-9635

WASHINGTON (June 11, 2024) — New research, released today, provides the first measures of how much of the cancer-causing petrochemical, ethylene oxide, is emitted by facilities in part of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley—showing levels more than nine times higher than pollution modeling used by the Environmental Protection Agency and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. The peer-reviewed study was published in the journal, Environmental Science & Technology and performed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University with funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Beyond Petrochemicals Campaign. 

Using a suite of cutting-edge measurement tools in a mobile laboratory, researchers at Johns Hopkins captured real-time data on air pollution emissions in Cancer Alley, which runs between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, in February 2023. EPA Risk Screening Environmental Indicators tool estimates that 68 percent of the total hazard from air pollutant emissions in the industry-heavy corridor is attributable to ethylene oxide

 “Accurate measurements of ethylene oxide are needed to understand exposure and cancer risks for communities near to petrochemical facilities.” said lead researcher Peter DeCarlo, an associate professor of Environmental Health and Engineering who studies air quality. “Because the measured values of ethylene oxide greatly exceeded modeled value, we encourage state, local, and federal agencies to prioritize accurate emissions data to properly estimate risks to communities and protect public health and the climate—in Cancer Alley and beyond.”

Despite growing concern over pollution and public health in Cancer Alley, the study found that measurements of ambient ethylene oxide have been underestimated across thirteen census tracts in the region. EPA currently estimates health risks by relying on emissions data from local and state environmental agencies, which in turn often rely on industry self-reported estimates and not direct measurements.

“The research from Johns Hopkins reinforces what our communities have painfully known for decades: petrochemical facilities are poisoning us with dangerous, carcinogenic chemicals,” says Heather McTeer Toney, executive director of Beyond Petrochemicals. “We must measure the contaminants in our air directly, rather than depend on the industry’s self-serving estimates. These measurements must shape policies that prioritize the health of our frontline communities over toxic pollution. This study shows us not only the availability of this information, but gives people who live in an impacted community, the data to demand transparency, accountability, and action to protect our health and environment.”

Communities neighboring petrochemical facilities are at an unjust and disproportionate risk for cancer and other health issues from ethylene oxide, which is a volatile organic compound used as a petrochemical feedstock to create commercial chemicals. Ethylene oxide is extremely carcinogenic, and chronic exposure is associated with a variety of cancers, including leukemia, myeloma, lymphoma, and breast cancer. 

Read the full report here.      

“This ground-breaking work reveals the danger of relying solely on pollution values estimated by industry. As community advocates, we’ve seen super polluters like Sasol Chemicals retroactively change their ethylene oxide calculations, to report lower numbers after public pressure about cancer risk,” says Kimberly Terrell, Ph.D., staff scientist and director of Community Engagement at Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. “To ensure public safety, LDEQ must require all toxic emissions to be measured, not estimated, at the fenceline of polluting facilities.”

“We are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Johns Hopkins University’s recent study has uncovered alarming levels of cancer-causing ethylene oxide in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, far exceeding previous EPA and state estimates,” says Sharon Lavigne, founder and director of RISE St. James. “This underscores the urgent need for accurate, real-time air quality measurements to shield our communities from the devastating health impacts of long-term exposure to this highly carcinogenic chemical. We’re flat-footed, exhausted from enduring these health risks and demand immediate action to ensure the safety of our neighborhoods.”

“We’re hoping the politicians will believe scientific data over lobbyists’ wishlist. Johns Hopkins’ report shows not only the fence line communities are harmed by cancer causing ethylene oxide, but neighboring communities seven miles away from a facility producing ethylene oxide,” says Gail LeBoeuf, co-founder and director of Inclusive Louisiana. 

“As an organization for environmental justice and humanity we stand in solidarity with all who fight for clean air, water, soil and the health of our communities,” says Barbara Washington, co-founder and director of Inclusive Louisiana. “The Johns Hopkins research has proven that the respiratory problems, the shortness of breath, the chronic coughs, the lung cancer and breast cancer that so many of our loved ones and friends are experiencing is in direct correlation with ethylene oxide.” 

“This study is a wake-up call for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, which has issued permits for decades allowing petrochemical plants up and down the Mississippi River to emit high levels of ethylene oxide without conducting meaningful air monitoring for the benefit of the people of Louisiana. LDEQ must take this study seriously and stop defending industry practices that expose communities to high cancer risks from ethylene oxide emissions,” says Corinne Van Dalen, senior attorney at Earthjustice. “While LDEQ has the authority to permit pollution, it also has a duty to protect the public from unacceptable cancer risks. This study demonstrates that ethylene oxide levels in the air are indeed measurable and LDEQ must conduct ongoing monitoring to ensure public safety, particularly as it considers new permits for the Formosa Plastics petrochemical complex.”

###

About Beyond Petrochemicals:

Launched by Bloomberg Philanthropies in September 2022, Beyond Petrochemicals: People Over Pollution aims to halt the rapid expansion of petrochemical and plastic pollution in the United States. The campaign draws on the success of the Beyond Coal campaign, supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, and Bloomberg’s Beyond Carbon campaign, to turbocharge existing efforts led by frontline communities to block the rapid expansion of 120+ petrochemical projects concentrated in three target geographies – Louisiana, Texas, and the Ohio River Valley. The campaign also works to establish stricter rules for existing petrochemical plants to safeguard the health of American communities. To date, Beyond Petrochemicals has helped raise awareness and lead timely collaboration efforts using its four pillars of community leadership, data and research, legislation and litigation, and stakeholder engagement to accelerate its goals. For more information, please visit us at beyondpetrochemicals.org and follow us on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, and X.