Cancer Alley

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A mound of oil drums near the Baton Rouge ExxonMobil Refinery along the Mississippi River in December 1972.

Cancer Alley (French: Allée du Cancer) is an area along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, in the River Parishes of Louisiana, which contains numerous industrial plants. Locations in this area with clusters of cancer patients have been covered by the news media, leading to the "Cancer Alley" moniker.


In 1987, when residents of one street in St. Gabriel, Louisiana, primarily African-American and low income, noticed the abundance of cancer cases within their community, “Cancer Alley” became the new name for Jacobs Drive. As similar incidences became more and more prevalent in surrounding areas, the “alley” grew to encompass an eighty-five mile stretch along the Mississippi River. Prior to media coverage of the issue, the area between Baton Rouge and New Orleans was simply known as the “petrochemical corridor”.[1]

The St. James Parish, also known as Cancer Alley, has 50% people of color in its population, which more specifically consists of 49.4% African American residents and 0.6% from other groups. This parish also has 20.7% of its population living in poverty.[2] However, this demographic is not reflected in the employment at the manufacturing plants. Surveying 11 plants in the St. James Parish, researchers found that these plants only employed between 4.9% and 19.4% African Americans, which is remarkably low in comparison to the overall population.[3] The manufacturing plants in Cancer Alley disproportionately affect African American people while simultaneously excluding those same communities from employment opportunities.

In 2002, Louisiana had the second-highest death rate from cancer in the United States. While the national average is 206 deaths per 100,000, Louisiana's rate was 237.3 deaths per 100,000. However, the death rate from cancer in the area dubbed Cancer Alley was not higher than the rest of Louisiana. The same study says that among people of color, stomach cancer was increased and diabetes and heart disease were significantly higher in the industrial corridor and Louisiana than the USA as a whole.[4]

In 2000, Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) data showed that Louisiana ranked second throughout the nation for total onsite releases, third for total releases within the state, and fourth for total on- and offsite releases. Louisiana, which has a population of 4,469,970 people, produced 9,416,598,055 pounds of waste in 2000. Seven of the ten plants in the state with the largest combined on- and offsite releases are located in Cancer Alley, and four of the ten plants with the largest onsite releases in the state are located there.[5][6]

In 1969, DuPont opened a plant to manufacture the chemical chloroprene, the main ingredient in neoprene. The plant was sold in 2015[7] to Japanese chemical company Denka. The area immediately adjacent to the Denka/Dupont neoprene plant in St. John the Baptist Parish has been recognized by the EPA as having the likelihood of getting cancer from air pollution over 700 times the national average.[8][9]

Cancer Alley is one of the most well known environmental sacrifice zones in the field of environmental justice. A sacrifice zone is defined as a geographical area that has been contaminated by dangerous chemical pollution. This term originated as “National Sacrifice Zones” during the Cold War to describe areas contaminated by the mining and processing of uranium to create nuclear weapons. Today, the term has been shortened and its definition expanded to include any location facing disproportionate exposure to dangerous pollutants, especially when in low-income and BIPOC communities. [10]

Community organizing[edit]

The injustices of Cancer Alley have resulted in many instances of community organizing, where people living in a particular area work together to fight for their shared interests. Typically, this involves historically underrepresented groups.[11] Cancer Alley is home to some particularly successful examples of community organizing that have been taking place since the 1970s, especially in the battle to prevent new factories from being built in this 85-mile stretch of land.[12]

In 1996, Shintech Inc. announced that they would be creating three new polyvinyl chloride (PVC) manufacturing plants in Convent, Louisiana. The state of Louisiana issued Shintech permits to proceed with the project in 1997, despite their acknowledgement that these locations would be adding 623,000 pounds of pollutants to the air annually. The population within a five mile radius of the site of the plants is 81% African American, compared to the overall parish population which is 49% African American.[13] The choice of location is a clear example of environmental racism.

The residents of Convent did not take this decision lightly. In response, a coalition called St. James Citizens for the Environment (SJCJE) drew the attention of many legal groups, including the Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. The combination of community organizers and larger groups were able to wage various legal battles against the company, and in 1998, Shintech decided to withdraw their project plans.[14]

Another notable example of community organizing within Cancer Alley is a march organized in 1988 by the Gulf Coast Tenants Association and Greenpeace. These groups led protesters across the parish in an effort to raise awareness of the health and environmental concerns posed by manufacturing. One major win for the environmental justice movement came in 1992, when the 750 residents of the small town of Wallace waged a legal battle that eventually convinced the company Formosa to build their rayon and pulp processing plant elsewhere.[15]

Different Perspectives on the Severity of Cancer Alley[edit]

On March 2, 2021, the United Nations (UN) on Human Rights discussed the continued industrial projects along the Mississippi River in Louisiana. The UN council on contemporary racism strongly condemned what they defined as environmental racism in their discussion with experts and other UN officials:

"This form of environmental racism poses serious and disproportionate threats to the enjoyment of several human rights of its largely African American residents, including the right to equality and non-discrimination, the right to life, the right to health, right to an adequate standard of living and cultural rights."

The sentiments stated by environmental activists are echoed through this condemnation posted by the United Nation's Human Rights Commission.[16]

On January 27, 2021, United States President Joe Biden signed an executive order regarding environmental justice and specifically cited Cancer Alley as a hard hit area.[17] Louisiana Chemical Association President Greg Bowser, responded to President Biden's remarks on the region. Bowser refuted claims that residents of the industrial corridor have a higher risk of developing cancer in multiple articles.[18][19] Furthermore, he cites the Louisiana Tumor Registry (LTR) data to support his claims.[20][21] The LTR shows that there have not been an increase in cancer deaths connected to industrial pollution.[21]

Activists and locals have combated the LTR. Activists claim the census tracts utilized for the LTR cover large areas and the data does not allow for specific locations next to chemical plants to be viewed individually.[22] Moreover, the registry relies on medical records to distinguish if cancer was the cause of death. Locals are concerned that COVID-19 deaths will not attribute statistically to cancer if the victims were suffering from it.[23] Another statistical concern for locals is that people will not seek medical help before they die because of monetary or social reasons.[24] Louisiana health officials may not release the specific cases and data because of medical privacy laws.[25]

Cancer studies[edit]

In their 2012 book Petrochemical America, photographer Richard Misrach and Columbia University architecture professor Kate Orff explore the social, environmental, and health impacts of the petrochemical industry in Cancer Alley through photography, writing, and infographic-style illustrations.[26]

In popular culture[edit]

British industrial metal band Godflesh used a digitally altered image of a crucifix in front of Cancer Alley as the cover art for their 1996 album, Songs of Love and Hate.

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild discusses the environmental and health conditions in Cancer Alley, as well as the socioeconomic and political ramifications, in her 2016 book Strangers in Their Own Land.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Cancer Alley: Big Industry, Big Problems". MSNBC. Retrieved 2017-02-21.
  2. ^ Blodgett, A. D. (2007). An analysis of pollution and mommunity advocacy in ‘Cancer Alley’: setting an example for the environmental justice movement in St James Parish, Louisiana. Local Environment, 11(6), 647-661, DOI: 10.1080/13549830600853700.
  3. ^ Berry, G. R. (2003). Organizing against multinational corporate power in cancer alley: The activist community as primary stakeholder. Organization and Environment, 16(1), 3-33. DOI:10.1177/1086026602250213.
  4. ^ Tsai SP, Cardarelli KM, Wendt JK, Fraser AE (April 2004). "Mortality patterns among residents in Louisiana's industrial corridor, USA, 1970–99". Occup Environ Med. 61 (4): 295–304. doi:10.1136/oem.2003.007831. PMC 1740760. PMID 15031386.
  5. ^ Centers for Disease Control. (2002). Cancer Prevention and Control "Cancer Burden Data Fact Sheets, Louisiana." Atlanta, GA.
  6. ^ Coyle, Marcia. (1992). "Company Will Not Build Plant: Lawyers Hail Victory." The National Law Journal, October 19, p. 3.
  7. ^ "Louisiana's Cancer Alley Residents Sue Chemical Plant for Nearly 50 Years of Air Pollution".
  8. ^ Hersher, Rebecca. "After Decades Of Air Pollution, A Louisiana Town Rebels Against A Chemical Giant". NPR. NPR. Retrieved 21 September 2018.
  9. ^ "Cancer Alley, Louisiana". Pollution A - Z. Retrieved 21 September 2018.
  10. ^ Lerner, S. (2010). Sacrifice zones : The front lines of toxic chemical exposure in the United States. MIT Press.
  11. ^ Gittell, R. (2016, May 17). Community organizing. Encyclopedia Britannica.
  12. ^ Taylor, D. (2014). Toxic communities : Environmental racism, industrial pollution, and residential mobility. New York University Press.
  13. ^ Berry, G. R. (2003). Organizing against multinational corporate power in cancer alley: The activist community as primary stakeholder. Organization and Environment, 16(1), 3-33. DOI:10.1177/1086026602250213.
  14. ^ Berry, G. R. (2003). Organizing against multinational corporate power in cancer alley: The activist community as primary stakeholder. Organization and Environment, 16(1), 3-33. DOI:10.1177/1086026602250213.
  15. ^ Taylor, D. (2014). Toxic communities : Environmental racism, industrial pollution, and residential mobility. New York University Press.
  16. ^ "USA: Environmental racism in "Cancer Alley" must end – experts".
  17. ^ writer, TRISTAN BAURICK | Staff. "Biden utters the words 'Cancer Alley,' but will he help Louisiana's chemical corridor?". Retrieved 2021-03-30.
  18. ^ "Letter to the Editor: 'Cancer Alley' moniker unwarranted by research". Hanna Newspapers. Retrieved 2021-04-13.
  19. ^ "Opinion: The Data Doesn't Support "Cancer Alley" Designation in Louisiana". The Times of Houma/Thibodaux. 2021-02-21. Retrieved 2021-04-13.
  20. ^ BOWSER, GREG. "Louisiana industry: 'Cancer alley' is false description of health problems". The Advocate. Retrieved 2021-03-30.
  21. ^ a b "Cancer Incidence in Louisiana by Census Tract" (PDF). Louisiana Tumor Registry.
  22. ^ Russell, Gordon. "Health officials in "Cancer Alley" will study if living near a controversial chemical plant causes cancer". Mother Jones. Retrieved 2021-04-13.
  23. ^ Dermansky, Julie (2021-02-25). "From Pollution to the Pandemic, Racial Equity Eludes Louisiana's Cancer Alley Community". DeSmog. Retrieved 2021-04-13.
  24. ^ Dermansky, Julie (2021-02-25). "From Pollution to the Pandemic, Racial Equity Eludes Louisiana's Cancer Alley Community". DeSmog. Retrieved 2021-04-13.
  25. ^ Rights (OCR), Office for Civil (2008-05-07). "Your Rights Under HIPAA". Retrieved 2021-04-13.
  26. ^ Ottinger, Gwen, Ellen Griffith Spears, Kate Orff, and Christopher Lirette. "Petrochemical America, Petrochemical Addiction." Southern Spaces, November 26, 2013.
  27. ^ McCann, Sean. "What's the Matter with Cancer Alley? Arlie Russell Hochschild's Anatomy of Trumpism". Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved 2020-07-30.

Further reading[edit]

  • Nitzkin JL (April 1992). "Cancer in Louisiana: a public health perspective". J La State Med Soc. 144 (4): 162. PMID 1613306.
  • The documentary film "Fuel" by Josh Tickell. []

External links[edit]