Chloroprene detected near Denka while plant was not operating

Published 1:58 pm Tuesday, April 12, 2022

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LAPLACE — The Louisiana Department of Health is requesting assistance from federal agencies in response to the preliminary results of a project on chloroprene exposure in St. John the Baptist Parish.

A small monitoring demonstration conducted by the LSU Health New Orleans School of Public Health around the Denka Performance Elastomer facility in St. John Parish reported detectable chloroprene in two air samples, as well as metabolites in urine samples. According to LSU Health New Orleans, this indicates exposure to volatile organic compounds took place even when the plant was not operating.

This demonstration is part of a larger project commissioned by the Louisiana Department of Health to review cancer cases in St. John Parish. The project is called CRISP, short for “Cancer Risk in St. John Parish, and the report is available here.

Ten air samples were collected in September 2021 at offsite locations at different proximities from Denka. Urine samples were collected from seven residents at three of the residential locations.

No production of chloroprene of neoprene was reported by Denka Performance Elastomer that month due to impacts from Hurricane Ida. However, two of the 10 air samples indicated detectable chloroprene at levels above the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendations. These samples were taken near a local elementary school.

“Chloroprene levels at or across the street from the elementary school were estimated to be 0.78 and 0.85 μg/m3 on September 23— approximately four times above the EPA’s recommended maximum annual average chloroprene air concentration of 0.2 μg/m3,” notes Adrienne Katner, DEnv, MS, associate professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at LSU Health New Orleans School of Public Health, who led the project.

She continued, “This recommended chloroprene air concentration was set to limit cancer risk among 1 million persons to 100 cancer cases per year. Denka’s air monitors also detected chloroprene in September 2021, with concentrations as high as 4.7 μg/m3 (September 22) at the western edge of Denka’s property, and 24 μg/m3 (September 27) at the eastern edge. These levels were between 23 and 2,120 times above 0.2 μg/m3. The EPA’s chloroprene air limit is a recommendation, not a required regulatory standard. However, it is important to understand that levels below state and national air quality standards cannot always ensure zero health risks, especially when considered in the context of simultaneous exposures to other facility-specific emissions.”

According to LSU Health New Orleans, some sites had detectable levels of other volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including toluene, benzene, xylene and 1,2,4-trimethylbenzene, but none of these exceeded EPA’s chemical-specific lifetime recommendations for non-cancer health effects.

Of nine urine samples from seven residents, all had detectable levels of DHBMA, a metabolite of chloroprene and 1,3-butadiene. HOBMA, CHPMA, Cl-MA metabolites were detected in urine samples, suggesting exposure to chloroprene, 1,3-butadiene and epichlorohydrin; however, the researchers were unable to verify the identity of these metabolites.

According to Katner, “Gaps in scientific knowledge about the cancer and non-cancer health impacts of lifetime exposures to low levels of chloroprene and VOC mixtures on vulnerable populations like children, the elderly, immunocompromised, sick and pregnant women, support a need for precautionary practices by state and parish officials.”

Katner sees a need for a cumulative risk assessment for all Denka emissions. The report recommends the following:

  • Cumulative risk assessments should be conducted by LDH and LDEQ for health assessments and permit applications, respectively.
  • In addition to cancer outcomes, LDH should track non-cancer health outcomes to evaluate potential impacts to the population from multiple emissions released by Denka and other facilities in the area.
  • LDH should implement a school-based health surveillance system.
  • If funds allow, biomonitoring should be used by LDH to quantify resident and child exposures to chloroprene.
  • Denka should be required by LDEQ to conduct online real-time fence line and offsite continuous air monitoring to track the spatial dispersion and temporal patterns of chloroprene and other VOC air emissions.
  • It is critical that the LDH and the LDEQ work together to adopt proactive precautionary practices and policies and establish a trust-based supportive relationship with the community.

State and federal efforts to address air quality in St. John the Baptist Parish were initiated when the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2011 National Air Toxics Assessment was released in 2015. This report indicated that chloroprene being released from the Denka facility could potentially lead to increased cancer risks in the surrounding community.

In response to the most recent report, the Louisiana Department of Health has issued official requests for technical assistance from two federal agencies: EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Assistance is needed in technical analysis, assessment of the need for additional monitoring and/or data collection, and, if recommended by the federal agencies, implementation of data collection efforts.

Jim Harris, spokesperson for Denka Performance Elastomer, said decades of research produced by the LSU Health Sciences Center’s Louisiana Tumor Registry show that there is no increased cancer rate in St. John the Baptist Parish or the area around DPE’s facility.

“This data was verified as complete as part of the CRISP study that Adrienne Katner references in LSUHSC’s press release. There are no adverse health impacts reported in Adrienne Katner’s research,” Harris said. “Instead, Katner’s recommendations are based on a mischaracterized version of a draft suggestion made by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, not on observed health outcomes. The 0.2 value for chloroprene risk, which is based on faulty science, is subject to appeal and meant to be applied as an average lifetime exposure.”

After assuming operation of its LaPlace, LA facility in 2015, Denka Performance Elastomer recognized the community’s concerns and invested over $35 million to reduce its emissions, resulting in a reduction of its chloroprene emissions by more than 85%. Denka has also conducted air monitoring near the facility since 2016, and monitoring results show significant reductions in chloroprene concentrations measured.

According to Harris, Denka has also worked with LDH and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to study this issue and provide information to area residents.

“The health and safety of our employees and community are Denka Performance Elastomer’s top priorities, and the company continues to work to reduce its environmental footprint,” Harris said.

— Brooke R. Cantrelle contributed to this report