Dangerous Pollution in Cancer Alley Leads to Higher COVID Mortality

A cemetery stands in contrast to the chemical plants that surround it in “Cancer Alley” near Baton Rouge, La. Imae: Giles Clarke

Between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, a trail of 150 petroleum factories makes up one of the most rampant petrochemical industries in the nation for the past century. It’s also led to some of the nation’s most polluted air and water giving the region the ominous nickname of “Cancer Alley” due to the concentrations of cancer-causing chemicals in predominantly Black and poor communities.

Residents of Cancer Alley are also disproportionately dying from COVID-19. As Sierra Magazine wrote,

At one point in April, St. John the Baptist Parish had the nation’s highest per capita COVID-19 death rate. Despite the fact that African Americans account for only a third of the Louisiana population, they account for 55% of COVID-19 deaths. 

Worst of all? Louisiana’s air pollution standards are the loosest that the EPA allows, and a ProPublica investigation found that the state generally “takes companies at their word on emissions.”

Why This Matters: As our nation is having a reckoning over structural racism, we must also examine the ways in which the health of the environment also affects injustice. Corporations have freely polluted areas deemed to have little political and economic capital, and lack of adequate regulation has allowed them to do so. Now that we’re in the midst of a pandemic that compounds the effects of pollution and disproportionately kills Black Americans, the lasting damage of environmental racism cannot be ignored.

Air Pollution and COVID: As NBC News reported, researchers at Harvard University recently found a clear link between air pollution and COVID-19 and concluded that “long-term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to experiencing the most severe COVID-19 outcomes.”

  • They argued that the findings align with all the research that shows PM2.5 exposure can cause conditions “that dramatically increase the risk of death in COVID-19 patients.”
  • Similarly, researchers at Tulane University and the University of Memphis made the argument that long-term exposure to air pollution itself “should be considered a pre-existing condition for COVID-19.”

Additionally, Kimberly Terrell, director of community outreach at the Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic, identified Louisiana’s PM 2.5 hotspots and looked at the COVID-19 outbreaks in those locations. As Grist reported, the majority of PM 2.5 hotspots are concentrated along “cancer alley” — and so are the highest death rates from COVID-19.

A Pattern of Injustice: Hop Hopkins, director of strategic partnerships and an environmental justice advocate at the environmental organization the Sierra Club explained that the fact that these tragedies have been playing out in communities of color across the U.S. and around the world is no accident. 

“It says something that you can plug your ZIP code into a website and you can see what your life expectancy is,” Hopkins said, “and it’s not the same for everyone. It’s not accidental, it’s unfair and it’s unjust.”

Supporting Activism: Local activists like our Hero of the Week, Sharon Lavigne, have been fighting for years to stop pipelines and force the petrochemical industry to clean up their pollution. Her voice, and that of countless other activists, rarely makes the news. Even after one prominent member of the Coalition Against Death Alley, Rev. William Barnwell, died in March of suspected coronavirus, there’s little national attention on Cancer Alley.

That must change. We cannot leave environmental justice out of reporting on the coronavirus and the recovery efforts that we must make. Rebuilding the country has to start with addressing the pollution that has caused regions of the United States to be so much more susceptible to the virus.

Up Next

Securing a Sustainable Future for Buffalo, People, and Nature

Securing a Sustainable Future for Buffalo, People, and Nature

By Wizipan Little Elk On August 23, 1804, a shot rang out on the wind-swept prairie near what is now called southeastern South Dakota, marking the first buffalo kill of the famous Lewis and Clark reconnaissance expedition. For us Lakota, our neighbors, and our buffalo relatives, it signaled the beginning of what was to become […]

Continue Reading 1106 words
Gallup Finds Fewer Americans Prioritize the Environment During the Pandemic

Gallup Finds Fewer Americans Prioritize the Environment During the Pandemic

Continuing its set of opinion surveys in the run-up to Earth Day, Gallup has released the results of another poll, finding that the percent of American adults who say that “protection of the environment should be given priority even at the risk of curbing economic growth” has dropped by 15% since 2018. Experts say that this number often correlates with unemployment, which the COVID-19 pandemic greatly increased.

Why This Matters: President Biden has worked hard to debunk the jobs vs. environment arguments of Republicans — he instead argues that job creation and economic growth must go hand in hand with investment in clean energy and other “green” policies.

Continue Reading 488 words
Netflix Pledges Net-Zero Emissions by 2023

Netflix Pledges Net-Zero Emissions by 2023

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer Netflix has announced a commitment to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2022. The plan, called “Net Zero + Nature,” was announced on the Netflix blog by Dr. Emma Stewart, who became the content platform’s first sustainability officer in the fall of 2020.  Netflix estimates that its 2020 […]

Continue Reading 495 words

Want the planet in your inbox?

Subscribe to the email that top lawmakers, renowned scientists, and thousands of concerned citizens turn to each morning for the latest environmental news and analysis.