Air of Uncertainty: Study shows cancer rate 'significantly higher' near manufacturing plant

ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST PARISH, LA (WVUE) - Two sides of a cancer controversy involving a manufacturing plant in St. John the Baptist are claiming victory after an in-depth look at cancer rates by LSU researchers.

Since the Environmental Protection Agency released its National Air Toxics Assessment map in 2015, St. John residents have feared the air they were breathing was causing them cancer.

The EPA's study singled out Denka Performance Elastomers in Laplace for its chloroprene emissions, saying the release puts people who live and work nearby at the highest risk of developing cancer in the nation.

But the LSU Tumor Registry concluded St. John the Baptist Parish was actually below the state's average cancer rate.

Last year, state lawmakers voted to have researchers get a closer look at cancer rates using census tracts. The results of that study were released at the beginning of the month.

"This data clearly represents what we've been saying all along," Louisiana Environmental Action Network's Wilma Subra said. "When you look at the census tract report, you clearly see the bad data, the increased rate over the state level of types of cancer that are associated with chloroprene."

Subra believes the LSU Tumor Registry's new census tract study shows chloroprene's direct impact on residents. The study puts the entire state's cancer risk at 486.7 per 100,000.

At the census tract next to Denka where one school, Fifth Ward Elementary, is located, the rate of all cancers combined is 608.7. Another tract nearby is 607.2 per 100,000. Those rates are "significantly higher" than the state average, according to LSU researchers.

But researchers also point out that other tracts in St. John are "significantly lower" than the state average. Out of the 11 tracts in the parish, five are above the state's average cancer rate.

According to Denka administrators, the Tumor Registry's study proves their point.

They have argued the EPA used incorrect data when classifying chloroprene as a likely carcinogen, despite the federal agency denying the plant's appeal twice.

The EPA has linked chloroprene to lung, liver and kidney cancers.

There are elevated rates among those cancers in census tracts near the plant, but not at "significant rates" like there were in all cancers combined.

Denka spokesman Jim Harris released an emailed statement saying, in part:

"The tumor registry's new data shows none of the census tracts around the facility show any statistically significant increased incidence of the cancers the EPA suggested to be associated with chloroprene compared to the state average...The new census-tract cancer incidence data published by the Louisiana Tumor Registry strongly contradicts the suggestion by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 2015 National Air Toxics Assessment report of 'extremely high risk of cancer incidence' in St. John the Baptist Parish and the areas surrounding the Denka Performance Elastomer Facility in LaPlace."

Harris went on to state:

"If the NATA report's suggestions were correct, the Tumor Registry's data should show an extremely high rate of incidence of those cancers for residents near the Denka Performance Elastomer Facility. In fact, the Tumor Registry's new data shows none of the census tracts around the facility show any statistically significant increased incidence of the cancers the EPA suggested to be associated with chloroprene compared to the state average."

Subra does not buy that argument and contends chloroprene is linked to other cancers such as colon and prostate cancer, which were recorded at higher rates in some tracts in St. John.

"The people need to request that the emissions be reduced to acceptable levels so that their exposure does not increase their risk of cancer," Subra said.

Denka voluntarily spent more than $25 million to reduce chloroprene emissions. The technology is in use and levels have decreased significantly, overall.

But last month, a level 25 times higher than the EPA's safety standard was recorded at Fifth Ward Elementary.

The EPA's safety standard is not an industry standard. An act of Congress would have to change the industry's standard of chloroprene emissions. At this time, Denka has not been found to have violated any federal or state laws or guidelines.

The LSU Tumor Registry turned its findings over to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, which has sided with Denka.

DHH State Health officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry released an emailed statement saying:

• The chloroprene levels detected in St. John the Baptist Parish over the last two years in the air sampling are well below the levels that would constitute an immediate public health emergency. We have not received any information that suggests there is an imminent threat of an illness or health condition associated with exposure to chloroprene at the current levels.

EPA, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Justice are looking into business practices and emissions coming from Denka

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