The University Network for Human Rights recently released the results of a health survey of the area near the Denka/DuPont plant in St. John Parish. The University Network study — which The Guardian has called “the most detailed and comprehensive evidence to date that (residents) are at an especially pronounced risk of cancer and other negative health effects due to toxic chemicals in the air” — found that cancer and illness levels among those surveyed are unusually high and correlated with distance from the plant.
Dr. Mindy Roseman of Yale Law School, formerly an instructor at the Harvard School of Public Health, said the following about the study: “The findings of this report are alarming, especially regarding children within the radius. This is a matter not only of environmental and racial justice, but one of public health and human rights protection for the most vulnerable among us. Those responsible — Denka Performance Elastomer, municipal, and state authorities — will have to take appropriate action. This is not a report to be ignored.”
A recent article about the study in The Advocate revealed fundamental misunderstandings about the nature, methodology, and significance of survey-based approaches in epidemiology, which are well-established and known as “shoe-leather” studies. When an urgent public health problem arises, shoe-leather epidemiological studies are a common first line of response.
Dr. Jeffrey Wickliffe of Tulane University said the following about his comments to The Advocate regarding the study: “Any studies regarding these communities and their health should facilitate communities’ involvement in those studies, as was done in this project. EPA-estimated cancer risks due to chloroprene emissions in census tracts 708 and 709 are far too high, ambient air concentrations are far too high, and chloroprene levels have got to come down. It’s just that simple.”
The article also included the opinions of Ms. Wilma Subra, a local environmental advocate who suggested that she would have liked to see a breakdown of our analyses by cancer type. The rigorous nature of our data analysis did not permit us to take this approach, which would have been deeply flawed and would have undermined the quality of the study for multiple reasons. Disclosing small numbers of people in a concentrated area who have reported specific, rare cancer types implicates serious privacy and confidentiality concerns, as well as statistical concerns having to do with sample size. In addition, although we know that chloroprene is a likely human carcinogen, there is much that we do not know about the specific types of cancer linked to chloroprene exposure. Given these issues, focusing on higher rates of liver, lung, and kidney cancers, as Ms. Subra suggested, is not scientifically sound.
For more details on these and other issues raised in the article, visit https://www.humanrightsnetwork.org/health-study-faqs.
executive director, University Network for Human Rights