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‘River Parishes not cancer alley’

By Leonard Gray / L’Observateur / May 25, 1998

BATON ROUGE – A researcher with the Louisiana Tumor Registry told the Mississippi River Corridor Task Force the “cancer alley” image of the River Parishes is a myth.

Dr. Vivien Chen said, “Are people who live in the industrial corridor morelikely to get cancer? The answer is no.”The river corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is reportedly the greatest concentration of chemical plants and oil refineries in the world.

It is also the target of environmental activist groups, which feel the corridor is the primary source of cancer among local residents.

Chen reviewed reported cancer cases and mortality rates, comparing them to state and national averages.

Among her findings, she found that, despite the fact the 350 industrial sites within the corridor produces 79 percent of Louisiana’s total emissions to the air, water and land, cancer rates for the most part are equal or below national cancer averages.

The main exception to this trend, Chen said, is with lung cancer, where the incidence rate among black males is 20 percent higher in the River Parishes than the national average.

Lung cancer is particularly dangerous, she continued, as one of five new cancer cases in Louisiana is lung cancer and there is an 85 percent mortality rate within five years.

One of three cancer deaths in Louisiana, also, is lung cancer, she continued.

Prostate cancer incidence in the River Parishes are roughly the same for white males with the national average and, for black males slightly lower than the national average.

Breast cancer rates for white and black females are each lower in the River Parishes than the national rate.

Colorectal cancers are slightly below the national averages in the River Parishes, and substantially less for black males.

Cervical cancer for white females in the River Parishes is lower than the national average but for black females the rate is much higher. Thedifference is ascribed to not enough black females having pap smears to detect the cancer at an earlier stage.

Altogether, Chen concluded, cancer mortality rates in the River Parishes are “nearly identical” to the state and national rates, despite the heavy concentration of major industries.

The study actively sought data from state hospitals, radiation treatment centers and through a review of death certificates which list cause of death.

The study reviewed data from 1987 through 1993, but Chen said a new study should be completed next year, including data from 1991 to 1995.

Dr. Terry Fontham, department head of Public Health and PreventiveMedicine of the LSU Medical School, reviewed plans for the ongoing Lower Mississippi River Interagency Cancer Study for the Task Force.

The $400,000-per-year study, launched in January, will continue for two years.

One of the tasks of the study will be to determine the effects of smoking on cancer rates in the River Parishes, especially lung cancer. Anothersegment of the study will review DNA information to determine how different people process carcinogenics, where some will develop cancer while others will not.

Still another segment will review the psychosocial impacts of living near an industrial site.

“It’ll be several years before we have any answers for you,” Fontham commented.

Also discussed was the high incidence of lead poisoning among children in the New Orleans area, especially among economically-disadvantaged black children.

Children are at highest risk living in a house built before 1950 or one rebuilt or remodeled before 1978, where lead-based paint may have left remnants.

Also, the soil near such homes could likewise contain leftover lead which children could ingest, according to Dr. Maureen Daly of the LouisianaOffice of Public Health, Maternal and Child Health Department.

The Task Force meeting was held at the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality Building on Bluebonnet Road in Baton Rouge.

The task force is a 14-member panel made up of governmental officials, industry representatives, state and local representatives of the NAACP and area residents.

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