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Air Pollution Could Be Causing Higher Cancer Rates in Louisiana’s Low-Income Communities: Tulane Study

Age-adjusted annual cancer incidence rates, averaged from 2008-2017, as reported by the Louisiana Tumor Registry.
Kim Terrell
Age-adjusted annual cancer incidence rates, averaged from 2008-2017, as reported by the Louisiana Tumor Registry.

A new Tulane study finds that air pollution could be causing higher rates of cancer in low-income communities in Louisiana. Louisiana has the 7th highest cancer rate in the United States. The study found that higher pollution levels were linked to higher cancer rates among the most impoverished census tracts.

The report compares the most recent data from the Louisiana Tumor Registry, published in 2021, with pollution-related cancer risk from the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2005 National Air Toxics Assessment. It also accounts for race and poverty status, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We shouldn't need this extra bit of evidence,” said Kimberly Terrell, a Research Scientist at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic and lead author of the report. “These communities have disproportionate cancer risk because..hopefully this (study) will be all the more motivation for state decision makers to take action to reduce toxic air pollution in poor communities.”

Residents in these communities have been making the same claim as the report for years, especially in the industrial corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans where advocates have been fighting ongoing petrochemical development.

A 2019 Propublica reportfound that pollution continues to increase in many river parishes.

The EPA tracks the release of toxic pollutants like benzene, formaldehyde and ethylene oxide.

The state tracks cancer data through the Tumor Registry, which is run by LSU. Officials have used that data to say that communities near petrochemical plants do not experience disproportionate cancer rates.

Tulane scientists used the same data to see if there was a correlation between higher cancer rates and poverty and air pollution.

“You have to look at the entire picture, including poverty rates, to see the link between toxic air pollution and cancer,” Terrell said. “The reports published by the Louisiana Tumor Registry don’t include information about pollution or poverty, so it’s not surprising that they failed to document this link.”

The study included data for the entire state. It has not yet been peer reviewed.

A spokesperson for the Tumor Registry took umbrage with the report’s findings, saying the registry is not intended to evaluate causation. It collects data to support research.

Governor John Bel Edwards’ office, which has pledged to research public health impacts in the chemical corridor, did not respond to requests for comment on the study.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and local listeners.

Tegan Wendland