Cancer Alley, Louisiana

“Cancer Alley” is the popular name for a cluster of Louisiana parishes along the Mississippi River where many chemical refineries are located. The residents of these parishes have high cancer rates.

  • A 2010 segment on the public radio program “Living on Earth” featured a story about area residents filing a human rights claim with the Organization of American States against the U.S. The residents say that the U.S. government is not doing enough to protect them from the environmental hazards of “Cancer Alley.” [1]
  • In the Fall of 2012, the New Yorker did a long photo essay showing the hideous pollution of the waterways near the refineries in “Cancer Alley.” [2]
  • “Cancer Alley” has been featured on environmental websites in stories that generally combine eye-popping figures about the quantity of chemicals dumped, along with reports on Louisiana’s high cancer rates. [3][4]

And therein lies the problem. Louisiana has really high cancer rates generally. Even in places nowhere near “Cancer Alley.”

Louisiana, with 197 cancer deaths per 100,000 residents, ranked fifth in the U.S. in that grim statistic. [5]

Are cancer rates in “Cancer Alley” higher than cancer rates other places in the state?

We can look at the parishes that make up “Cancer Alley” but it isn’t entirely clear where “Cancer Alley” is. An early scholarly article on “Drinking water and Cancer in Louisiana” looked at “selected” parishes along the Mississippi River. [6] The New Yorker photo essay focused on “the Mississippi corridor that stretches a hundred and fifty miles between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.” [2] A more recent article – using the term “Cancer Alley” – looked at cancer in Mossville, Louisiana, in the southwest corner of the state – very much NOT on the Mississippi River. [7] Mossville residents are essentially awash in dioxin. However, while the article doesn’t mention this, cancer rates in Calcasieu Parish (where Mossville is located) are not much above the state average. [8]

It is also not clear from these reports which cancers they attribute to chemical exposure. Louisiana does have a very high lung-cancer mortality rate – about 15% higher than the national average – but that is to be expected for a state that ranked #8 nationwide (2009) in percentage of adults who smoke cigarettes. [10]

Anyway, if we just count the most traditional definition of “Cancer Alley” – the parishes along the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans – we get the following nine: East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, Iberville, Ascension, St. James, St. John the Baptist, St. Charles, Jefferson, and Orleans. In a state where the incidence rate of cancer from the years 2005-2009 was 488.9 per 100,000 residents, 4 of the 9 “Cancer Alley” parishes had cancer rates LOWER than the state average. While a couple parishes had very high cancer rates, overall “Cancer Alley” parishes had a average cancer rate (497.1) barely higher than the state average. [8]

The parishes with the highest cancer rates are scattered across the state. Some are clustered in the southwest corner where refineries are common and chemical dumping is much publicized. [7] Another is upstream from cancer alley – Pointe Coupee Parish, a rural and agricultural area. [11] And then there are other clusters scattered about the state, in a pattern that is not uniform but rather appears random from parish to parish. [9]

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