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New study uncovers health threats to babies born in Louisiana's 'Cancer Alley': 'The level of human health crisis is identifiable and preventable'

"Cancer Alley is a place where those consequences can't be ignored."

"Cancer Alley is a place where those consequences can't be ignored."

Photo Credit: iStock

A new study is revealing a disturbing threat to babies in Louisiana, which contains an 85-mile stretch known as "Cancer Alley." 

What happened? 

In January, Human Rights Watch released the findings of a study under peer review for publication in the journal Environmental Research: Health. 

According to that study, communities with the highest levels of toxic air pollution saw preterm births reach 25.3% — more than twice the rate of the national average. Low birth weights were recorded at 27% compared to the U.S. average of just 8.5%.   

"The level of human health crisis is identifiable and preventable," HRW senior researcher and lead report author Antonia Juhasz told the Guardian. 

Cancer Alley, which has more than 200 petrochemical plants, is known for having "one of the highest pollution-related cancer rates in the country," as reported by the news outlet. 

Certain communities have been more heavily impacted. HRW noted that "the most polluting operations [are] disproportionately concentrated within Black communities." Low-income residents have higher pollution-related risks as well.

"When you cluster all the pollution together, you can see the most extreme [health] consequences. Cancer Alley is a place where those consequences can't be ignored," Kimberly Terrell, one of the report's authors, said of the alarming new findings. 

Why are preterm births and low birth weights concerning? 

According to the World Health Organization, "Prematurity is the leading cause of death in children under the age of 5 years." 

Children born before the completion of 37 weeks of pregnancy (a full-term birth is around 40 weeks) may also be more susceptible to long-term health issues like asthma and kidney disease or have cognitive disabilities. Low birth weights were also linked to an increased risk of mortality, as well as developmental delays.  

What can be done about this? 

Shuttering dirty energy and chemical plants in favor of cleaner solutions appears to be a promising path forward. As the Guardian noted, San Francisco's Hunters Point neighborhood saw preterm births drop by around 25% after a coal plant stopped operations in 2006. 

"This suggests that you can, to some degree, protect communities by being far away from the concentrated toxic source," OB-GYN specialist Nathaniel DeNicola told the news outlet. 

Some Louisiana residents are also leading the way toward a healthier future, including through the courts and coordinated campaigning. HRW reported that St. James Parish is advocating for new economic opportunities unrelated to the heavily polluting industrial sector. 

"I would like to see the end of fossil fuels. If that's going to make me live a longer life, breathe clean air, drink clean water, they should shut them down," 71-year-old resident Sharon Lavigne said in the report. 

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