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Researchers make disturbing discovery about health risks in 'Cancer Alley': 'We didn't expect the levels that we saw'

"I don't think there's any census tract in the area that wasn't at higher risk for cancer than we would deem acceptable."

"I don't think there's any census tract in the area that wasn't at higher risk for cancer than we would deem acceptable."

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Researchers have uncovered that ethylene oxide gas produced in industrial areas of Louisiana is likely much more toxic than previously thought, according to a report by the Guardian.

What's happening?

Environmental engineers from Johns Hopkins University studied the air quality for pollutants in a southeast Louisiana area, which is known as "Cancer Alley'' due to abnormally high rates of the disease. They found more than they were bargaining for. 

"I don't think there's any census tract in the area that wasn't at higher risk for cancer than we would deem acceptable," senior author Pete DeCarlo said, per the Guardian report. "We expected to see ethylene oxide in this area. But we didn't expect the levels that we saw, and they certainly were much, much higher than EPA's estimated levels."

After driving through areas near chemical plants and testing the air for ethylene oxide with cutting-edge equipment, the researchers found that levels of this cancer-causing gas were 1,000 times higher than previous tests had revealed, according to the news outlet. And, as the report detailed, it was still 10 times greater than regulators had predicted in environmental models. 

Why is this issue so important?

Chemical plants primarily use the gas in plastics production — and plastic is another product that has downstream impacts on humans and the environment. 

Although there are many plants scattered throughout the nation, it's the dense concentration in this area that's troubling. There are low-income populations nearby, while others are in the path of roughly 7-mile-long plumes that extend from some facilities, per the Guardian. 

The report noted that East Ascension High School is only five miles from one of these chemical hot spots. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, over 6 million people across Texas and Louisiana live within about 30 miles of such facilities. Nearly 90,000 of those people have cancer risks above the 100-in-1 million maximum chance in the "range of acceptability." 

Industrial encroachment on human populations is a common problem across the globe. Toxic chemicals, air pollution, and industrial runoffs can impact not only our health but that of wildlife and the environment as a whole. 

What's being done about ethylene oxide pollution?

Increased transparency about the damaging pollutants being produced by heavy industry is a starting point. Some companies have settled with the EPA and communities, pledging to reduce ethylene oxide and other pollutants — in one case by 5.6 tons per year. 

In April of this year, the EPA announced new rules to reduce toxic air pollution from various plants across the U.S., including Louisiana, as reported by the Louisiana Illuminator.

"This is a game changer any way you look at it," said EPA Administrator Michael Regan at a press event, per the news outlet. "This is a game changer for the health. It's a game changer for the prosperity. It's a game changer for children in these communities nationwide."

In a White House press release, Patrice Simms, Earthjustice Vice President for Healthy Communities, said: "Setting protective air standards for over 200 chemical plants and requiring fenceline monitoring for some of the most toxic emissions shows a commitment to protecting public health."

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