Air of Uncertainty: High cancer rates, pollution blamed in high St. John coronavirus deaths

Updated: Apr. 9, 2020 at 8:37 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - People in St. John Parish before would tell you how cancer affects nearly every family here, but with the threat of the coronavirus, they say the amount of death in their community is shocking.

“Blacks as a whole are being victimized by this in disproportionate numbers,” citizen, Bobby Taylor said.

Taylor is accustomed to fighting something he can’t see. He’s long been a part of the concerned citizens of St. John, which protests the nearby rubber plant, Denka-Dupont from emitting chloroprene into the air. An element the EPA has labeled a likely carcinogen. But now, those in St. John Parish, a predominately black community are also dying from coronavirus at an alarming rate.

“The weakest people are going to suffer the most and it’s evident that we are the weakest people in the nation and maybe in the world because of our exposure to the onslaught of these chemicals,” Taylor said.

The LSU tumor registry has found higher cancer rates in St. John parish.

Environmental scientist, Wilma Subra says given the high rate of cancer and other pre-existing conditions, it's no wonder St. John is seeing more coronavirus deaths.

“Those pre-existing conditions are associated with the chemicals that are released in the air by the industrial facility in St. John,” Subra said.

Taylor is among thousands of others suing the plant, saying it’s contributed to the cancer and respiratory issues in the community. And seeing how coronavirus has impacted those St. John residents, attorney, Hugh “Skip” Lambert says it only validates their claims.

“What we’re pointing out is that chloroprene on top of these other risks that the community faces as well as what makes this community more vulnerable,” Lambert said.

Taylor says he'll continue the fight against chloroprene, but fighting coronavirus too he says they're scared.

“Looking at all our people dying all around me and don’t know when it’s gonna be me next or my daughter or my little pretty grandbaby that I was just talking to, she’s four years old what does her future going to be like what are these people doing here,” Taylor said.

Taylor and other environmental activists continue to press Denka-Dupont on reducing those emissions and temporarily shutting the plant down in these times.

A Denka-Dupont spokesperson released this statement:

“Denka Performance Elastomer DPE is working hard to produce materials in high demand in the fight against COVID-19. Our facility is designated an essential industry by the state and nation because we make synthetic rubber that is used to make medical exam gloves and respiratory treatment equipment that first responders, healthcare professionals and everyday people are using to prevent infections. Specifically, materials produced by our facility in LaPlace, Louisiana are used in the production of Neoprene, which is used to make ventilators, face masks, gloves, bandages, adhesives and other critical medical supplies used by medical professionals worldwide.

During these uncertain times, we remain committed to what matters most - the safety of our employees and this community. We will not compromise safety. After the virus was detected in the United States, we implemented our crisis plan and have taken steps designed to keep all of us safe as we work to serve our customers and our community. Our facility continues to break safety records every day and has now gone over two and half years without an injury. We continue to screen our employees for symptoms and have reduced contact between people at the facility to prevent spread of the virus. Like many other facilities, we have reduced personnel onsite to only the essential personnel needed to operate safely while the rest of our employees continue to support the site working from home. The safety and wellbeing of our employees and our community is now, and always has been, at the center of what we do."

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