Jun 11, 2024 - News

Toxic gas found at levels 1,000x higher than what's safe in Cancer Alley, study says

Illustration of a skyline showing a nuclear plant on a waterfront with emissions from the towers only visible in the water's reflection.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A carcinogenic, toxic gas was detected in the stretch of Louisiana communities known as Cancer Alley at levels 1,000 times higher than what's considered safe, according to a new study from Johns Hopkins researchers.

Why it matters: The eye-popping numbers offer a baseline ahead of the implementation of new EPA standards that the agency says could cut the number of people at elevated risk from cancer-causing emissions by 96%.

Threat level: The new study, published this week in Environmental Science & Technology, says that ethylene oxide was found in concentrations that "dwarfed" EPA estimates, according to a press release.

  • The man-made gas is used in manufacturing other chemicals, but also can be used to sterilize medical equipment.
  • "That tells you it's particularly nasty," the study's senior author Peter DeCarlo tells Axios New Orleans.

How they did it: In part because ethylene oxide is dangerous in incredibly small concentrations, detecting it has historically been a big challenge, DeCarlo says, so people who live near plants with it in their emissions have a nearly impossible time understanding their risk.

  • For the study, researchers equipped two vans with cutting-edge, highly sensitive technology to gather readings from the air.
  • They drove the vans through the stretch of industrialized communities between New Orleans and Baton Rouge known as Cancer Alley, tracing the same route from LaPlace to St. Gabriel, over and over again for an entire month, gathering data the whole time.

By the numbers: Ethylene oxide becomes a health concern at 11 parts per trillion, according to the researchers.

  • In some places near industrial facilities, the team found concentrations at 40 parts per trillion.

What she's saying: "This underscores the urgent need for accurate, real-time air quality measurements to shield our communities from the devastating health impacts of long-term exposure to this highly carcinogenic chemical," said RISE St. James founder and director Sharon Lavigne in a press release.

  • "We're flat-footed, exhausted from enduring these health risks and demand immediate action to ensure the safety of our neighborhoods."

What's next: The new EPA standards were announced after the study and don't become effective until July 15.

  • Though violators of the new standards will be subject to EPA penalties, DeCarlo says it's not yet clear how facilities will measure their ethylene oxide emissions because it is so challenging to do.

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