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Air of Uncertainty: Residents claim traces of 'likely carcinogen' found inside their bodies

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LAPLACE, LA (WVUE) -

Residents living next to a manufacturing plant in St. John the Baptist Parish say lab tests found traces of a likely carcinogen in their bodies. 

The Environmental Protection Agency classifies the chemical chloroprene as a likely carcinogen. 

The EPA says 99 percent of chloroprene emissions in the nation are pumped out of the Denka manufacturing plant in Laplace. It warns that the chemical puts anyone who lives and works nearby at the highest risk of developing cancer in the nation. 

"To me, I'm just a ticking time bomb - especially with the levels that were discovered in my system," resident Bobby Taylor said. 

Taylor and group of citizens have sued Denka after the EPA released its National Air Toxics Assessment map in 2015. The study singled out the plant for its chloroprene emissions.  

Recently, 18 members of the group, including Taylor, took a urinalysis to see if traces of chloroprene were in their livers. All 18 samples came back positive, according to the group's attorneys.  

"What the ultimate medical significance of that is that I think it's suggestive of the increased risk of cancer. But ultimately that determination, that is the question and that needs to be answered because they're are kids playing at recess going to school everyday breathing this invisible substance in on a regular basis," the group's attorney Eb Garrison said. 

Last year, the EPA set up air monitors at six locations to record the presence of chloroprene around the plant. Two monitors are at schools - East St. John High and Fifth Ward Elementary. 

The EPA's suggested standard for long-term exposure is .2 micrograms per cubic meter. In the past year, air monitors at the elementary have recorded levels as high as 75 micrograms, but there are times when no chloroprene was detected. 

However, the most recent air sample from the elementary recorded a level of 13.7, which is 63 times higher than the EPA's safe standard for long-term exposure.

"That's to me is what's so devastating about the children at such high rates," Taylor said. 

But the EPA's safe standard is only a suggestion. It is not an industry standard the plant must adhere to. 

Currently, Denka's permitted to emit 857 micrograms of chloroprene into the air per eight hour shift, that standard was set before chloroprene was classified as a likely carcinogen. 

According to Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality records, the plant has been under that amount since Denka took over the plant in 2015.  

"We are part of some of the most major industries in the country a lot of our suppliers depend on this plant and a lot of our customers of course, depend on our production," Denka plant manager Jorge Lavistida said. 

Denka's Laplace facility produces 15 percent of the world's neoprene, a synthetic rubber used to make wetsuits, athletic gear, medical equipment and products for the military.  

Denka is the only neoprene producer in the country.

The company disputes the EPA's studies and claims the federal government is wrong when determining the cancer risks involved with chloroprene exposure. 

"Denka Performance Elastomers feel and know that the emissions that we have now, that the exposures that we have now are safe. We are also very sensitive and understand the concerns that the community has. We really do and understand that EPA bares a name here and people are listening to that. That's why we have agreed to reduce emissions," Lavistida said.  

Denka signed an agreement with the state and federal government to reduce its chloroprene emissions by 85 percent by the end of the year. 
Lavistida said the company voluntarily spent more than $20 million to bring down the levels.

LDEQ documents indicate levels have decreased but there are still spikes in the readings. One reading last month in Reserve had a reading as high as 30 micrograms per cubic meter.

The EPA did not agree to an on-camera interview but sent a statement saying: "The chloroprene IRIS assessment was based on very strong scientific studies, including a study conducted by the National Toxicology Program, and it underwent extensive review by experts within EPA, from other Federal agencies and the Office of Management and Budget, and by a panel of independent expert peer reviewers."

But Denka still argues the EPA is disseminating erroneous information and incomplete data. The company has requested a correction from the EPA to change chloroprene's classification from a likely carcinogen to a possible carcinogen. 

"We feel if they do want to emphasize science that they will see the gaps in the original study and they'll see how our study fills those gaps very nicely and also matches very well the reality we see on the ground, so to speak, or in our area here," Lavistida said. 

The LSU Tumor Registry shows lower than average cases of cancer in St. John the Baptist Parish compared to the rest of the state, but residents and their attorneys said the registry may not tell the whole story.

"That's a concern that if you're just looking at the data across the parish. Your data might be diluted, and you might not be aware of significant increases of cancer in closer proximity to the facility," Garrison said.  

This year, state lawmakers changed the requirements for the tumor registry to include data at the census tract level.

"People saying why don't you just sell and get out. How could I in good conscience sell this to a family," Taylor said. "What could I say hey give me a quarter on the dollar." 

EPA recently investigated the Denka plant and found several Clean Air Act violations including one violation that said workers were exposed to 50 to 8000 times the OSHA standard for chloroprene exposure. 
            
Denka is currently appealing those violations, which means the Denka facility in Laplace has no violations on its record at this time.  
            
The EPA is expected in the next six months to respond to Denka's request for correction and the appeal of its investigation.   

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