One Hundred Years of Cancer

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Photo credit: Andrew Lichtenstein (Getty Images)

By Hunter Marion.

Imagine if hundreds of nuclear reactors concentrated in areas encompassing about 700,000–800,000 people in total were to have openly leaked copious amounts of radiation into adjacent neighborhoods for decades –a century even– with no enforced restrictions whatsoever. It would be absurd! Especially since nuclear disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima have dramatically elevated fears of radiation exposure amongst the public. However, trade out the radiation for carcinogenic toxins and the nuclear reactors for petrochemical plants, and that is exactly what is happening in the “Golden Triangle” of Texas and along Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley.

Since “black gold” was discovered at Spindletop in 1901, petrochemical plants and refineries have been metastasizing along the Gulf Coast for over one hundred years. Residents within these areas have been virtually locked into a parasitic relationship with companies like Gulf Oil, U.S. Rubber, Texaco, ExxonMobil, Goodrich, Koch Industries, etc. They have depended on petrochemical companies for employment, municipal funding, and education programs, but in exchange have suffered consistent exposure to carcinogenic chemicals like dioxin, benzene, styrene, and butadiene. Such prolonged exposure has resulted in unprecedented levels of breast and ovarian cancers, lymphoma, and leukemia among citizens directly and indirectly affiliated with the refineries.

On average, an estimated 1 in 5,000 people in the Golden Triangle and Cancer Alley are at an incremental lifetime cancer risk. The EPA’s upper limit of acceptable cancer risk is 1 in 10,000. According to ProPublica, “an estimated 256,000 people are being exposed to risks beyond this threshold and […] an estimated 43,000 people are being subjected to at least triple this level of risk.” Although institutions like EPA, OSHA, and even Johns Hopkins University have repeatedly studied the correlation between the petrochemical refineries and local cancer rates, official results have been mixed. However, in 1977, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) did report concerning levels of benzene in Texas and pushed OSHA to issue a non-binding guideline lowering the standard of industrial benzene use. This guideline was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980, who ruled in favor of petrochemicals. The opinion declared that a “safe” workplace was not guaranteed as being “risk-free.” Thus, workers’ (and thereby surrounding residents’) exposure to toxic chemicals were deemed justifiable “risks.”

Benzene and dioxin have been two of the most prevalent carcinogens produced by these refineries. Benzene, a sweet-smelling, colorless liquid/vapor, can interrupt important cell functions in your body, such as stopping red or white blood cell production. Long-term exposure to benzene can result in leukemia or severe bone marrow damage. Despite being labelled as a carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, petrochemical companies continuously use –and under-report– it. For example, in 2000, a whistleblower for Koch Industries reported that the company concealed the discharge of 91 metric tons of benzene over Corpus Christi, TX from environmental authorities (Jane Mayer, Dark Money). Dioxin is invisible to the naked eye, usually resembling dust. Dioxin is not intentionally synthesized; however, it frequently forms from burning wastes or dioxin-contaminated products. Refinery flares have been associated with dioxin contamination via reports of glowing ashes raining out from their exhausts. Small towns like Mossville, LA have been decimated by dioxin. Sullivan Ramirez, a local activist, reported that there “wasn’t one block that didn’t have cancer.” An EPA inspection of the average level of dioxins in the blood of Mossville residents was found to be triple that of the general U.S. population. Across in Reserve, LA, Mary Hampton made a similar observation: “Almost every household has somebody that died with cancer or that’s battling cancer… It’s the worst thing you’d ever want to see: a loved one, laying in that bed, pining away, dying.” Reserve’s risk of cancer from air toxicity (which includes dioxin exposure) is 50 times that of the national average.

It is necessary to emphasize that the majority of residents within the Golden Triangle and Cancer Alley are low-income, Black and/or Hispanic people. This is an environmental justice issue compounded by systemic racism and classism. Additionally, a sizable chunk of Cancer Alley is sitting atop some of the world’s most rapidly sinking land (Elizabeth Kolbert, Under a White Sky), layering another existential threat against residents. If the residents were wealthier, whiter, or more radioactive, then this problem would probably be taken more seriously by regulatory authorities. But it is not.

If you want to learn more about national “cancer clusters” like those in Texas and Louisiana, ProPublica has created an in-depth mapping tool.

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