Air of Uncertainty: EPA cites sick school children in emission reduction plan

Air of Uncertainty: EPA cites sick school children in emission reduction plan

ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST PARISH, LA (WVUE) - In an action plan to reduce chloroprene emissions at the Denka manufacturing plant, the Federal Government cites two incidents where more than a dozen children became ill at school, but Louisiana Department of Health and Hospital leaders do not believe the children's symptoms are related to what is being pumped out of the facility.

"EPA was probably looking for, did anything occur back in 2015 with any kind of illnesses or anything like that in children in schools so this report became available to them," DHH State Health Officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry said.

Since November 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency has singled out Denka for its chloroprene emissions, saying it gives people who live and work near the plant the highest risk of developing cancer in the nation.

Last year, the EPA and Denka agreed to reduce the plant's chloroprene emissions by 85 percent.

In the action plan, the federal government highlighted two separate instances from September and October of 2015 where students who were temporarily relocated to a school in Reserve became sick.

The school sits about three miles away from Denka. A school nurse twice reported incidents where nearly two dozens children complained of headaches, chest tightness, vomiting, dizziness, fever, nausea and several other symptoms.

Guidry said he is unsure why the incidents were included in the action plan.

He said DHH investigators looked into the cause of the symptoms at the school but could not determine what happened.

"It was very short-lived and it hasn't occurred again. So it's hard to understand why you'd put that in a report that you're reporting where people are exposed to a chemical for years and years and years," Guidry said.

DHH's report on the incidents suggested the children be moved back to the school's permanent location at the earliest possible time and warned the temporary school was located in a high risk area situated among several industrial facilities that produce airborne particulates and the risk of chemical release.

However, investigators did not look into a possible link between chloroprene exposure and the students' symptoms because EPA's warning about chloroprene coming from Denka had not been published yet.

"You can't say without any certainty it wasn't but it's unlikely," Guidry said. "You really can't go back and know what was that level at that time but why would it be just at that school but not elsewhere in the community?"

Guidry said investigators researched local hospitals and found no elevated cases of upper respiratory problems during the time of the two incidents.

"We feel strongly that the numbers we have now are safe for our employees and safe for our community," Denka plant operator Jorge Lavistida said.

Denka has voluntarily spent more than 20 million dollars in new technologies at the plant to bring down emissions, according to Lavistida.

The company made the investment despite appealing the EPA's classification of chloroprene as a likely carcinogen.

"We feel if [EPA] does 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 has not found an increase number of cancer cases in St. John the Baptist Parish, according to Guidry.

However, the EPA stands by its data claiming it is backed by "very strong scientific studies."

Denka's reductions measures are bringing emissions down, but there are still spikes in recorded levels of chloroprene.

Last month, one air monitor near the plant recorded a chloroprene level 63 times greater than the EPA's safe standard for long-term exposure (40 years), but the safe standard of .2 micrograms per cubic meter is only a recommendation.

Denka is not mandated to abide by that number, and the company is currently adhering to all state and federal standards.

Guidry said DHH is following the reduction measures closely and the state is willing to react if the emissions are not reduced to what he would determine an acceptable level.

"Then we are going to work with DEQ and EPA to say we've got to do something else or it might mean producing less product. You know slowing down the production. It might mean certain areas around the plant where we are monitoring, it might mean people can't live there. All these things are possible as we work through this," Guidry said.

Guidry believes EPA's science needs more research and studies that could take years to determine a safe level.

"I don't know that we'll ever have the science that will ever link exactly what's a safe level what's not a safe level. It will be predictions," he said.

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