Louisiana does have a “cancer alley” problem but it isn’t the same one that President Joe Biden has casually and thoughtlessly cited.
That political slogan, rather than a considered and medical diagnosis, was uttered by the president as he signed executive orders to combat climate change and pollution.
Biden said “environmental justice” will take center stage as his administration works to improve the health and well-being of communities of color, especially “the hard-hit areas like Cancer Alley in Louisiana or the Route 9 corridor in the state of Delaware.”
There’s a lot to unpack in this. One thing that Louisiana folks might not know, having seen difficult environmental challenges here, is that Delaware was a center of America’s chemical industry a century or more ago.
Some of Biden’s predecessors in Congress were called the senators from DuPont, so influential was the company in that small state.
Does anyone in Delaware, or Louisiana, or anywhere else question that industrial growth results in emissions, and that those can indeed be injurious if not fatally hazardous to health? Or that we need effective environmental protection to reduce emissions?
But the phrase “cancer alley” is political shorthand for industry pollution that critics charge has ballooned death rates along Louisiana’s Mississippi River corridor.
As far as the facts can be determined, with large state investments in objective studies and a tumor registry, the overall health of folks may be better in “cancer alley” parishes where good-paying jobs with insurance benefits exist because of the petrochemical industry.
The causes of specific cancers can be extremely difficult to determine because there are so many variables. The census tracts used to generate statistical data are not perfect indicators but they are the standard approach to such a difficult epidemiological problem.
We do not doubt that smokestacks of plants are a contributor to some peoples’ health problems. That’s “common sense,” as Gail LeBoeuf, an environmental and civil rights activist in St. James Parish, said.
But it is hard to justify her attack on the more detailed analysis of U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge. He is not “blaming the victims.” Cassidy, a physician, was simply stating facts that myriad factors underline cancer rates.
Does Louisiana have a “cancer alley” problem? Absolutely, but it goes way beyond industrial development. It is rooted in poverty and bad habits and lack of access to health care, as well as the obvious contribution of a century of industrial development and its accompanying pollution.
To paraphrase Josef Stalin’s famous and cynical remark, the thousands of cancer incidents recorded in the registry are statistics, and the individual battling cancer is a tragedy. But responsible leadership, whether of the nation or of activist groups, requires that the statistics not be clouded by the emotional appeals to the tragedies of individuals.